Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Borders In Memoriam
Bankruptcies are always a bit sordid and there's no reason a bookstore chain should be any different. Of course we all shudder at the thought of a CEO presiding over Ch. 11 getting a $1.7 million bonus.
I thought Borders was the greatest thing since sliced bread when it started. Before Borders, bookstores were little boutiques squeezed into strip malls with half the space given over to greeting cards and tchotchkes. I was living in Europe when the first Borders megastores were opened outside its Ann Arbor base. Two of the first five were in Philadelphia and Overland Park, the places where my parents happened to reside. So every visit home I was able to go to a Borders and load up on a stack of books that weren't two years old and double the cover price.
The rest, as they say, is history. Borders spread across the country, and publishing and reading enjoyed a renaissance. Barnes & Noble copied and many respects improved the model. Then came Amazon, the world's biggest bookstore.
Borders of course could have been Amazon if management had been more alert (just as Dow Jones could have been Bloomberg, if only...). But it takes more vision than these managers had. Even as caretakers, they proved inadequate. Borders stores started to look dowdy as years went by and the company failed to freshen up in any way. It not only failed to meet the competition in Amazon, it failed by and large to meet the competition in B&N.
It's hard to know what the future of bookstores will be. I personally doubt that Borders will be able to successfully restructure or find a sustainable business model. B&N may squeak by because of its Internet presence. Politics & Prose just got new owners who also have some capital to invest. They will need it, because at the very least bookstores will need the machines to print and bind POD books, if that technology is not rendered completely obsolete by eBooks. B&N at least is fighting the good fight with its own eBook reader, retailing the hardware in its stores and the eBooks online.
It's hard for my generation to imagine the disappearance of printed books, and who knows, perhaps they will survive in some legacy form. Borders was probably doomed once it missed the Internet boat and it will now become history like video rental outlets.