On Wednesday morning, Borders Group, the bookstore chain founded in Ann Arbor Michigan in 1971, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It claimed more than $1 billion in debt and announced they would close 30% of its more than 600 stores. The publisher I work for was mentioned in the filing as one of those they owe money to.
This is probably the largest bankruptcy in the history of the book business, certainly the largest I’ve seen in my 20 years in publishing. It’s a sad day but certainly one that we saw coming for a while.
Borders didn’t seem to be making the right moves for a while. Peter Osnos wrote a piece in the Atlantic that does a terrific job of detailing what went wrong over the years with Borders, from ill-timed overseas expansion, to outsourcing their online business to Amazon.com rather than making their own play for the customer. He also details the “supermarket management” that tried to change the way they sold books, only to lose their way to the customer.
I made several visits to Borders’ corporate headquarters and was always impressed by the staff there. Carla, the technology and computing buyer, was a legend. She knew her category so well that if she didn’t like a title you presented, you immediately second guessed every publishing decision made to get you to that point. She was usually right. When she was reassigned to a different category, I certainly got the feeling that things with this account were not going to be the same again.
Looking through the list of stores that would be closing brought more doom and gloom. The huge store in Union Square in San Francisco where I would spend free evenings on business trips is on the list as well. Several stores in Indianapolis that my co-workers shop at will be gone soon. My local Borders appears to have survived, but who knows for how long.
I always enjoyed shopping in Borders. The staff members I encountered always seemed to genuinely love books. They were people like me – they lived for the thrill of turning someone onto a new author or a great read. People who loved holding books, feeling them, experiencing them.
To those who respond to the loss of these stores by saying, so what, people will just shop online, I beg them to think again.
Let me tell you about a woman I met in a focus group a few years ago. She talked about how she typically bought 4-5 books a month when her local bookstore was next to her grocery store. When the store, an independent, went out of business, she had no regular place to go for books. Her estimated number of books purchased after the closure was 8-10 per year.
When I commuted by train to work, I passed 4 bookstores on my way to my office. If I was to take that trip today, I would see one store that has greatly reduced in size. It’s hard to miss 4 stores, and I always had my pick of an establishment to get lost reading in.
Books aren’t like groceries. If your supermarket closes, you find another one. But when a bookstore closes, customers learn to do without. Sure, there is the must have book that comes along that causes a bookstore visit, but when the store is out of the way, maybe it becomes less of a priority. Sometimes customers find books in the big box stores where they are shopping anyhow.
You can’t argue that the fewer outlets there are for books, the fewer books are sold. We lose customers, but more importantly, we lose readers. I get excited when I think about the potential that eBook readers have for reaching customers. Still, it’s not the same as a physical bookstore. It’s not hard to imagine a world with far fewer bookstores – seen any record stores lately? For all of our sakes, I sincerely hope that Borders can find their way out of this and return to solvency. Readers and people who love books deserve more.
Photo Credit: Dave Dugdale.
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