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Some thoughts on the bankruptcy of Borders

February 16, 2011

Borders Group filed for bankruptcy today. It is, I’m certain, one of the final chapters in the long and, most recently, sad history of the bookselling chain; and I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about the news.

On the one hand this will likely turn out to be quite good for me. I do work for Barnes & Noble after all, so it’s kind of a big win. With Border’s closing about 30% of their stores it can only mean added business for us; and that will help to keep me in a job and the company I work for moving forward.

On the other hand it means that thousands of people, booksellers just like me, will now be losing their livelihoods. Sad.

Sadder still when one realizes that it’s not the fault of those booksellers that Borders is slowly moving towards vanishing into the sunset of retail that has claimed companies like Tower Records and Circuit City. And make no mistake – Borders, while staying in business through Chapter 11 for now, will go the way of those two former brick and mortar giants and eventually disappear completely.

Borders failures, it seems to me, were of vision and not of execution. From the outside looking in it’s difficult to know the whole story, but think I’m able to see better than most where the biggest problems for the chain lie. Giving away their e-business to Amazon back in 1998 was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end for them. Once people began shopping through Amazon there was no reason at all to go back to Borders once they did finally launch their own e-commerce site a decade later.

The same idea came into play with the advent of the e-reader. While Amazon and Barnes & Noble leveraged their print bookselling businesses into proprietary e-reader ecosystems, Borders stood on the sideline and choose to again get only halfway into the game by selling e-readers made by other companies.

Look at it this way. If I buy a Kindle, I have no other choice but to buy my e-books from Amazon (a business model I find offensive, but I digress). If I buy a NOOK, while I have some choice to buy e-books elsewhere the default option is still to buy them through Barnes & Noble. And beyond that, I have the option of going into a store and getting deals there with my NOOK as well. In either case, the business of e-books AND also of print books stays mostly with the company from whom you purchased your e-reader. It keeps your customers YOUR customers.

Borders, in choosing again to farm out what is quickly becomming an enormous piece of the book market, has essentially sealed their fate. I honestly don’t see a way back for them without building a dedicated Borders e-reader from the ground up; and that is all but impossible because they simply don’t have the resources to do so anymore. Maybe they never did.

I go into my local Borders from time to time just to see what’s happening. It’s partly research and, admittedly, partly Schadenfreude. I didn’t see encouraging signs the last time I was there. While the store was clean and looked relatively full, the experienced bookseller in me could see the proverbial writing on the walls – more through what wasn’t on the shelves than what was.

Bankruptcy protection may get Borders though the next few months, or maybe even years. But only a new direction for the company that embraces the future of bookselling will pull them through for the long haul; and there’s nothing to indicate to me that such a vision will materialize anytime soon.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2011 1:04 pm

    Turns out a local Borders is on the closing list, but not the one nearest me. The Saratoga Springs store is going to be closed. That should help the Barnes & Noble up there; and it will certainly make Michele happy to get the extra business.

  2. February 16, 2011 4:05 pm

    I want the physical sensory experience of browsing for books over a cup of really good coffee. The people who predict the demise of the bookstore compare it to the fate of the video rental store. They think that readers will take to Kindle the way that movie fans took to Netflix. It won’t happen. Spending and enjoyable afternoon in a nice bookstore is about as close to dashing in and out of a Blockbuster as a day at the beach is to 15 minutes in a tanning booth. I will occasionally buy online … always have … but I will still want to spend time in the bookstore.

    — Judson

    • February 16, 2011 6:15 pm

      I actually agree with you, Judson. Speaking as someone who makes a living selling books I find it a little sad to see so many stores close. That said, there’s no question that the book business is evolving almost daily. Borders didn’t evolve with it, and here they are. Thanks for the comment!

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