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Goodbye to Borders

Borders Group, the corporate parent of the Borders bookstore chain, is going out of business once and for all.  Shelf Awareness provided excellent coverage of the end earlier this week, and NCWN member Sam Love forwarded me this article from the Associated Press on the closing of Borders stores and what this means for the future of traditional and electronic books.

I got my start in the book business at a Borders store in Charlotte, back in the mid-90s.  I had just dropped out of grad school, wanting to be a writer, having no idea how to begin.  A friend had introduced me to Borders a few months before, and I had been impressed by the size and range of their selection.  They had on their shelves books I had only seen before in London, and had assumed I’d never see again.  So to make ends meet while I worked on that prize-winning bestseller (still working), I went back to Borders and got me a job.

When I started there, each bookseller was responsible for his or her own section: shelving new stock; re-shelving, straightening, re-alphabetizing; pulling dead stock for returns.  We also got to feel a sense of ownership for our sections.  We got to choose many of the books for display.  We got to create some of our own signs and merchandising.  We got an employee discount, of course, and a generous monthly credit to purchase books, music, and movies.  We were also allowed to borrow books, to help us stay up-to-date with the latest releases.

To be hired, you had to score well on a book-and-music test given along with your application.  As a result, most everyone I worked with was smart, talented, interesting, and passionate about what we sold.  We read the galleys of books that were not yet published; we listened to CDs that were not yet released, by bands still largely unknown; we got passes to movies on their opening nights.  We felt like a part of the culture.

Things change, of course.  The dot-com boom – in the form of Amazon – put enormous pressure on Borders’ brick-and-mortar superstores, and the corporate leadership had shareholders to answer to.  When someone uses the shorthand code “they got more corporate,” what they mean is that a company centralized more and more of the decision-making in order to maximize efficiency and revenue.  The endcap display I devoted to Hemingway or Faulkner or the Irish Renaissance – for free – was a lost opportunity to make money, when that same display space could be sold to a publisher for a month, to promote their latest release.  The book-and-music test was dropped, the reasoning being that stores should hire for attitude and train for knowledge.  At corporate headquarters, new executives were hired who had no experience in the book business; they came from supermarket chains and luxury retailers, and brought their experience of other business models with them.

I had long since set my sights on getting a job in regional publishing (I was never cut out for retail, ‘ornery’ being my default mode), but was especially grateful when the good folks at John F. Blair, Publisher, were dumb – uh, I mean – kind enough to offer me one.  Whatever fun working for Borders had offered was, by the end of the ’90s, largely gone, along with the sense of ownership, the sense of being a part of something bigger.

The thing is, you can’t sell books like you sell most anything else.  Each book has its own personality; not just each title, but each edition of a particular title – the experience of reading a worn, early-edition hardcover copy of Gone With the Wind is different than the experience of reading the same text in a shiny new mass-market, much less an e-reader; not necessarily better, but different.  Trade bookselling is by and large a task of matching a reader to the right story in the right form at the right moment.

I hate to hear of Borders’ closing, for the sake of all the many good people who still worked in their remaining stores and in the corporate offices, most of whom did everything in their power to make Borders Group successful.  I do not think, though, that the end of Borders is any kind of omen for all the other brick-and-mortar bookstores across the country; a lesson, maybe, but not an omen.