Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Country Without Borders :: The Blame Game

Last night, my wife and I walked past a great barn of a building, an abandoned space lurking on the edge of a mall in our little seaside town. As I glanced inside at the vast and empty sales floor that used to be crowded with bookshelves, it sank in... my town had lost its bookstore and there was no longer a bookstore of appreciable size anywhere nearby.  A toll bridge and thirty-odd miles of interstate now stand between me and the nearest purveyor of new books.

The store closed back in February, but this new wave of melancholy was underlined by the fact that earlier that day, America had lost the rest of the chain, 300+ stores and over 11,000 employees, all in one go. And the sight of this massive ruin felt very much like a glimpse of a lost civilization.

The massive building still carries the large BORDERS sign that I still use as a landmark for giving directions to my home and some of my favorite restaurants. It is a massive piece of real estate, purpose-built for the sort of book barn concept that Borders personified, and I have no idea how the property manager is going to find a tenant to fill it.

A lot of ink and electrons have been expended in service of the idea that Borders' demise is a harbinger of doom for the "brick & mortar" bookstore. Even this particularly thoughtful paean for the lost from Daily Finance still asks: Do we still need brick & mortar bookstores? 

The remaining upper management continues to push a "blame the ineffable" narrative as the reason for the demise of the company, which is feeding the idea that physical bookstores are no longer a viable business. That may or may not be true, but Borders' demise should not be the model for that argument.

Back in February, I wrote about the decisions that led to this pass: treating books as groceries, handing Amazon its web site, diluting their own brand as a bookstore, mishandling labor disputes... This morning's Publishing Perspectives column carried that ball further downfield, dating their litany of missteps back to 2001's store-level management restructing that eliminated the role of "Community Coordinator" from the store hierarchy. While I might quibble on a few points, that piece was obviously written by or with the aid of a current or former Borders employee who watched it happen from the bookfloor, just as I did.

The loss of a major avenue for authors to reach readers is never a good thing. But on a hopeful note, in the wake of fallen empires, power tends to devolve to the local level. Bookstores as a concept remain viable for now. Independent bookstores will regain some lost ground and here's even some well-earned schadenfreude to be reveled in by those locals who outlasted the carpetbaggers. Alliances such as IndieBound are working to strengthen the independent model and the advent of Google Bookstores allow the Indies to get a piece of the digital pie.

As barn-sized buildings like the one in my town go dark across America. It's tempting to cast them as the monoliths of Ozymandius, haunting reminders of the hubris of the past, empty monuments to the fate of all empires. "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" And as it was with Ozymandius, the blame lies squarely with those whose name hangs above.

Management wants to protect their reputations, and I get that. Spin it however you like, but trying to burn down the entire industry on your way out is reprehensible. Dark forces didn't align mysteriously to drive you out of business, it happened because your company zigged when it should have zagged. Try as you might, there's no interpretation of events at that company that doesn't end with the feeling that Borders made its bed and now they have to die in it.

The Buggywhip Defense League
riday, March 18, 2011

Beyond Borders -- The Borders Bankruptcy as Seen by this Former Bookseller
Wednesday, February 23, 2011


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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).