The announcement this week that Borders Group will liquidate its remaining bookstores by the end of the summer puts an end to my hopes for its unlikely revival. But though I’m sad to see it go, I don’t worry about the future of books or reading. What killed Borders wasn’t some irresistible economic or cultural force, but the loss of an essential resource businesses need to survive in times of change: passion.
Though I’m no expert on Borders, I draw this conclusion from a memorable personal experience. One of my first assignments as a journalist was interviewing the manager responsible for opening the first Borders bookstores in Atlanta. Though I don’t remember the exact date, it was in the mid-1980s, when Borders was just beginning the expansion that would make it the de facto local bookstore for many communities.
Although it would come to be seen as the enemy of independent bookstores, that wasn’t the impression I took away from my interview. The manager was not the sort of conflicted corporate bookseller portrayed by Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail,” a sensitive, soulful sort with a bloody-minded determination to smash his small competitors.
While the Borders manager was convinced of the superiority of his company’s approach to bookselling, he wasn’t brash. Rather, he believed deeply in what Borders was doing and in its potential to extend the independent bookstore experience to millions of people. He talked at great length about the benefits he wanted for Borders readers and the knowledge and dedication he expected from his clerks. His passion was such that he had me, a confirmed book lover and admirer of independent bookstores, ready to apply for a job there. Only the fact that I lived three hours from Atlanta stopped me.
Though I have not closely followed Borders since then, I have to believe that the core reason for its failure is not some economic or technological factor, but the simple loss of passion for bookselling. As noted in the Forbes RetailWire blog today, “Borders forgot how to be a bookstore” and started “hiring people . . . who had little or no interest in books, authors, or literature.”
So though I’m sorry to see the end of Borders, I don’t worry about the state of book publishing, selling, or reading. As long as people have the passion for books and the reading experience that I encountered in that Borders manager, the book business may evolve, but it will not fail.
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When Borders and Barnes and Noble came to Atlanta most independent bookstores began to fail and closed up. The independents were excellent stores that did have passion for books and book publishing. And they had cafes, book signings, reading, and even concerts at times. They were fun.
Borders and B&N did the same things, but in a slicker environment. They were/are not comfy or like talking to your friends. Now that they’ve killed the independents, they are in turn being killed by the Internet. Will the B&N and Books-A-Million concrete stores survive?
At some point, I predict more niche bookstores will open up in concrete. In a similar way, I believe print will come back, not as strong as the best times, but stronger as people get tired of reading poorly set type on a difficult-to-read substrate, get tired of not being able to find information easily, of being bombarded by so much digital. When they’re blurry eyed and can’t see straight.
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Thanks, Robin, for the comment. I don’t entirely agree with your analysis, though. Yes, in general, weaker independents were hurt by B&N and Borders, but many of them would have died off anyway. An example I’d cite is McGuire’s Bookshop, which had great potential, and which died well before the chains could have had any impact. Other factors were responsible for its failure. Another is Oxford Books. This was Atlanta’s defining bookstore, and it should have been able to weather any of the challenges posed by the chains. But poor business decisions did it in. So I agree that some new bricks-and-mortar bookstore may well rise up in Atlanta to take its place, however modestly. There is a place for at least one great bookstore in every great city.
I was speaking, er, writing generally, not just about Atlanta. You’re correct about Oxford Books and your link to the story confirms that. But the big boxes didn’t help any. Otherwise, I sit corrected.