Perspective by Kevin Fahy
by Kevin Fahy
It’s considered bad form to speak ill of the departed, and ordinarily I try not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. In this case, I’m going to make an exception.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I have been using a Kindle e-reader for a couple of years, in spite of the fact that I work in print publishing and prefer magazines on paper. If you read a lot of books the convenience factor is hard to dispute, and I go through about one novel a week.
For that reason it had been quite a while since I had gone shopping in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, but when I heard the news this past summer that Borders was in liquidation it rang a little bell in the back of my head. I rifled through a pile of stuff on my dresser and, sure enough, there was an old gift card that somebody had given me one Christmas.
I can’t stand seeing those things go to waste, so I called the closest Borders store to make sure it was still open, then jumped in the car and drove for an hour to get there. When I arrived I found not only that the doors were still open, but that one of them was stuck that way. Of the two fancy oaken doors at the front of the store, one had a broken hinge that left it hanging across the threshold.
Ignoring the obvious metaphor I went in through the other one and discovered that the store was pretty much the way I remembered it; that is to say confusing and not very busy. There seemed to be plenty of stock of everything, including best sellers and new arrivals, which was Not the way I had imagined a goingout-of-business sale. In fact, the only change I noticed was the little signage on each bookcase stating the “liquidation” discounts and the fact that all sales were final.
I read a lot of detective stories, so I set about looking for the most recent works from several of my favorite authors. There were a number of sales associates on the floor, but they were preoccupied with straightening up stacks of books, so I figured I could find a few popular writers on my own. “How hard could it be?”
A half-hour later I still didn’t have any books, but I did have an answer to my question. It turned out to be damned near impossible to find anything, because some authors were shelved under “mystery,” some under “literature,” and some in contemporary fiction. One writer was in all three.
When I finally came up with three books that I wanted, I got around to reading one of the little signs about the sale. It said that the liquidation discount on the hardcover novels in my hand was 20 percent off MSRP. The prices on the dustcovers were close to $30.00, meaning that the going-out-of-business price for a book was still over $20, which is probably about what most bookstores sold it for in the first place.
“No wonder this place is going under,” I said to no one in particular. “They can’t even fold at competitive prices.” Then I parted with my $50 gift card, threw in some of my own cash and, well, booked.
Borders started out as a single used bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1971. Over the following two decades, brothers Tom and Louis Borders grew the business into a thriving chain of 21 stores before selling the operation to Kmart in 1992. The big box giant combined Borders with the boutique chain it already owned, Waldenbooks, and set about constructing a nationwide string of huge stand-alone bookstores. At the time of its initial Chapter 11 filing last February, Borders was operating about 500 “superstores” and more than 100 mall locations.
If you believe in the conventional wisdom, Borders was killed off by the Internet. That’s an easy explanation, because all the branches of the publishing business have suffered during the electronic age, and especially since the recession was added to the mix. But it’s like saying that a man who died in 1944 was killed in the war. People simply accept that as an explanation because it was so commonplace, even though millions of men died that year from unrelated causes and millions of others from some combination of the two.
Borders seems to fall into that latter category. In a July 20 article in Slate, entitled“Readers Without Borders,”author Annie Lowry argues that the retailer’s demise was only tangentially related to the Internet,beginning with its response to the e-commerce boom a decade ago. After bungling a first attempt at an online store of its own, Borders made the fateful mistake of locking itself into a longterm joint venture with Amazon, in which it essentially handed all of its Internet visitors to Amazon through May of 2008. By then it was game over.
Second, Borders basically ignored the rise of e-books, while Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple each developed successful devices in Different ways. It wasn’t until last year that Borders finally came up with its own e-reader, the Kobo, which kind of speaks for itself.
Another issue was diversification. When Borders perceived that the Internet would cut into book sales it moved to expand into other product categories, but it chose things that were also particularly vulnerable to e-commerce, such as music Cds and movies on DVD. When iTunes and Netflix came along and knocked out the record stores and video stores, they also hit Borders.
Moreover, the article makes the case that Borders simply had way too many stores that were way too big. The overhead was unsustainable, especially during a recession, and the message to consumers was wrongheaded. You can’t very well position yourself against the Internet by emphasizing assortment.
My own take is that Borders lacked any sort of clear identity in the minds of the book-reading public. If I say Barnes & Noble you think upscale ambience. Amazon is high-tech efficiency, Books-a- Million is bargain basement, independents are charm and product knowledge. Quick, what is Borders?
The Internet didn’t kill Borders, and it won’t kill your business either, but it does force all of us to make decisions about who we are, what products or services we sell, who our customers are, and why they should choose to buy from us.
Borders made bad decisions. You and I have survived in the Internet age for a full decade now, which means just one thing. We still have the opportunity to make good ones.
You can e-mail Kevin at email@example.com.