Since the beginning of January, the news regarding the fate of Borders’ Books has grown increasingly dire. The nation’s second-largest bookseller is in a financial free-fall from which it is unlikely to recover. At the time of this writing, the company’s share price has fallen to 47 cents and a bankruptcy filing is widely expected to occur within weeks, with massive store closures to follow. This news elicits decidedly mixed feelings in me; I’m frankly not sure whether to cry or throw a party.
First, the complete demise of a bookseller with over 650 stores will put a very large number of people out of work; given the current unemployment situation this could not happen at a worse time. As with the closing of any large business, there will be collateral damage to ancillary businesses as well; the impact goes well beyond the book world. Lastly, for me there is nothing worse than seeing a bookstore, any bookstore, close.
With that said, Borders has done little to warrant the goodwill of independent booksellers or the reading public. Borders, which itself started as a single independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan showed no mercy in destroying independent bookstores across the nation by undercutting their prices, only to raise them again once the competition was gone.
Borders has consistently shown that, from a business standpoint, they have no idea what they are doing. While able to initially defeat the smaller indie stores because of mega-purchasing and discounting power, they have since been behind the curve on nearly every other decision. They expanded their CD section as everyone was turning to audio downloads, expanded their DVD section as everyone was moving to Netflix, and completely missed the explosion in e-books by producing an e-reader that was both inferior to other models and introduced later.
Worst of all for a bookseller, as time went on the number and variety of books they offered decreased. In a typical 25,000 square foot Borders store you will find a café, games, toys, calendars, stationery, and any number of other sideline items, but fewer and fewer books. The majority of the books leaned toward the best-seller list, exactly the titles that people could buy cheaper on Amazon or at big-box retailers like Wal-Mart or Target. The literature section got smaller (except for their own Borders Classics titles) and the vampire section got bigger.
There are some who think the loss of Borders will have a negative impact on the books that publishers bring out each year, especially from new or unknown authors. I don’t see how this is possible, given that they aren’t exactly on the cutting edge of new literature now. And as for publishers taking huge losses on inventory if Borders goes under, Borders stopped paying those bills back in December and have been essentially cut off by publishers since then.
Ultimately, while I won’t do a happy dance when Borders is gone, neither will I shed a tear. While giants like Amazon and Barnes & Noble will pick up some of their market share (what little is left by now) the void will also be filled by new, entrepreneurial, independent booksellers who are more knowledgeable, more customer-friendly, more able to adapt to changes in the publishing world, and more rooted in the community than Borders ever was. For me that’s a fair trade.