Rest in pieces, Borders

The Borders at my local mall is closing today. I’ll miss it.

I still remember when the store was being prepared. It was around the time I got married. My then-pastor said he was really looking forward to it opening. While his wife and his daughters shopped, he could hang out in there. I agreed with him. Nearly every time I went to the mall, I would sneak over to Borders for a while.

I first experienced Borders in 1994 or so, when they opened a store in Sunset Hills, Mo. I lived one town over. At the time, the suburb I lived in was too small for anyone to consider opening something the size of Borders there. Having grown up on the likes of Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, I’d never seen anything that size before. The store seemed to have everything.

So much so, that in 1997, when I was taking a lengthy day trip and heard a song billed as “a forgotten tune of the ’90s” on the radio–Inspiral Carpets, “Two Worlds Collide”–I stopped off at a Borders in hopes of buying it. If anyone was going to have it, that was going to be the place.

But they didn’t. The guy I asked knew exactly what I was talking about, but Inspiral Carpets’ shelf-life here in the States was painfully short. I ended up ordering it from CDnow, an early online-only music store that later sold out to Amazon.

And ultimately, that was half the problem. Borders only seemed like they had everything. If what you were after was a bestseller, or a recent bestseller, they could take care of you of course. If your tastes were more obscure or specialized, they might only have what you need half the time.

The other half of the problem was that in its race with Barnes & Noble to blanket the landscape with big-box bookstores, Borders took on more debt. Barnes & Noble isn’t the healthiest company in the world either, but it’s managed the changing world of bookselling much better than Borders did.

Well, but given what I’m reading now, maybe that in itself is only half the problem. Borders ceded online selling to Amazon in 2001, which was long, long before that war was won. Amazon didn’t post its first quarterly profit until Q4 of 2001. Borders was the last of the big players to get into e-readers. And the chain brought in management from other retail sectors who tried to apply other models to bookselling.

Now, I’m not a retail genius. I haven’t worked retail since 1995. But it seemed to me, in 1995, that managers tended to overthink things way too much. Mostly it comes down to having what the customer needs and making it possible to find it, and having good help for when that fails. Anything beyond that is just mind games. When the beyond-that stuff gets in the way of customers finding stuff and buying it, it’s just counter-productive.

I’ve heard stories about employees doing time-wasting things because management was paying a visit. Pleasing management for the sake of pleasing management is a waste of time. Employees should have more pressing needs than whether books are aligned flush to the front or flush to the back, depending on which preference the current management had. And if your employees actually have time to re-align books, the problem isn’t the book alignment, it’s that not enough customers are coming through the door. It shouldn’t take a business degree to know that.

I’m still unconvinced that bookselling’s future is entirely online and ultimately entirely e-book. Had Borders put a print-on-demand machine in every store, secured the rights to use it to print any book, and allowed people to order anything they wanted either online or via phone and pick it up at the nearest store within an hour, I think they would have stood a chance. A chance of not just surviving, but possibly even doing well. Amazon can get you virtually any book you want, but not in an hour. And of course, when people walk into the store to pick up the book they ordered, that creates traffic and the chance of additional sales.

But it’s entirely possible that Borders couldn’t have afforded to do that, even if they had wanted to. I’m sure at least one of the companies that makes print-on-demand machines approached them with the idea. Admittedly, print-on-demand has a finite shelf life, but I’m thinking it’s 10-20 years. I can think of several commonplace things that will be gone first. Like DVDs.

I’m not sure what happens next. Amazon certainly will benefit. Books-a-Million has picked up a few of the old Borders locations. Perhaps Barnes & Noble will decide it wants a few of them too. But there’s going to be a lot of big-box retail space for the market to absorb. I still see empty Circuit City, CompUSA and Linens n’ Things locations.

Maybe small, local stores selling books and/or music can experience a revival. There are a lot fewer of those today than there were in decades past. But it’s also harder today than it was in decades past–those smaller shops also would be competing with online vendors who can sell everything. Or e-books, which deliver nearly instantly, and cost less than printed books and take up less space. If someone offered me a million bucks interest-free and told me to use it to start a book store, I wouldn’t be able to think of a single reason to take the offer.

I have mixed feelings about Borders. Its expansion hurt small businesses and I like small businesses. On the other hand, I have pleasant memories about the place too. The first time I ever saw my book for sale on a shelf in a store was at that Borders location in Sunset Hills, way back in February 2001. And when I was traveling on business, it was nice to have that store two miles away, where I could pick up something to take on the trip and read. A store that size always had something.

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