I stopped by the two Borders bookstores closest to my home on Friday—the first day of the Borders liquidation sale. I wasn’t shopping for bargains, although it seemed that plenty of people in the long lines at the register were. Instead, I came to see those stores for the last time. I don’t expect to return to either location—even as prices are slashed to pennies on the dollar. Great deals may await the savvy shopper…but I’ve never been able to divorce a possession from the circumstances of its acquisition. That’s why you won’t find me trampling fellow-shoppers for a big screen TV at a Wal-Mart Black Friday sale, or trolling pawn shops for items that some desperate customer could not redeem.
To be clear: Although I prefer a small, independent bookstore to a chain any day, I’ve certainly purchased books from the big boxes of Borders and Barnes and Noble and from the “virtual boxes” of Amazon and Alibris too. I’ve given my money to the “bigs” as a matter of convenience (I saw a book at Borders and wanted it), or price (read a review of a book, then ordered it on Amazon for a better deal), as well as need (Alibris had a book I wanted that was out of print). Yet, I’ve always returned to the indies in the hope —fulfilled many times—that I can discover a new writer because that store respects the work of a mid-list author and isn’t interested only in blockbuster sales. In recent years, as more and more independent stores have been forced out of business, I’ve reduced my “box” purchases to practically nil. And I’ve ordered books from indie stores all over the country. Not because I have lots of disposable income and don’t mind paying for postage, but because I understand the consequences. If I want the variety and intimacy of a store that does not buy books by the pound, then I need to support that store. I buy less, but it matters more.
And that, in large measure, is exactly what Borders lacked: buying customers. Yes, the cafes were full—thanks to free wifi. But more often than not, customers came with laptops and paperwork, and took up residence as though the store was a well-endowed library rather than a retail establishment. Many didn’t even bother to buy coffee. Just last week I saw an entire study group talking over math problems in the Borders café while nibbling on snacks they retrieved from baggies in their backpacks. But why pick on students alone? I’ve seen middle-aged men and women enter the cafes with an armload of books and magazines more times than I can count. Many of these people bought coffee, but few left with any of the titles they had been reading. Fewer still returned their slightly worn materials to the shelves.
Business analysts cite any number of reasons for Borders’ demise: over-expansion into costly retail space, failure to move quickly and decisively to e-books, the growing popularity of e-tailers and a struggling economy. Many are happy to see it go. They blame Borders for the demise of hundreds of indie bookstores. But that’s not true. We are the ones who killed off those little stores—by shopping at Sam’s Club or Costco or Borders or any big box instead of the little shop down the block. We are the ones who were willing to forego the relationship with a store clerk who knew us and could recommend a title in exchange for 30% off a best-seller. We are the ones who enjoyed hours of free wifi in a café setting, wore out magazines and read entire books—all without spending a cent. And ultimately, it was this same sense of entitlement—of actions without consequences— that destroyed Borders. The management at Borders may have made poor business decisions, but we, in our greed and grazing—as if going to a bookstore was a spectator sport—are complicit as well. Conservative pundits like to use the phrase, “Freedom isn’t Free.” True, but we’ve been trying to make it as cheap as possible.
Fallout from the closing of our country’s second largest bookstore chain will be felt in many sectors of our economy. Nearly 11,000 people are losing their jobs. Analysts are predicting that publishers will react to the decline in shelf space by bringing out fewer titles. And don’t forget the thousands of individuals—from deliverymen to printers, proofers, designers and editors in that industry alone. And what of the darkened shells that once were Borders stores? How do those now-empty spaces affect the businesses around them? I recommend the ‘broken window effect’ as a sign of communities under stress. If you stop to think about the ramifications, the closing of Borders can feel ominous.
So what’s to be done? It’s too late for Borders, but not for everyone else. We must wake up and step up to the situation. Rather than move your laptop over to Barnes and Noble, why not go to the library? Study there. Then visit your local bookstore. And don’t take up residence to read a book—three chapters at every visit— like some freeloading uncle. Buy the book. Take it home. Read it and tell your friends about it.
We are all responsible for the opening of Borders. And we share in the reasons for its closing. What do we value? The cheapest product at the cheapest price? There isn’t a single segment of our society that is invulnerable. If we don’t value freedom, we won’t pay for it. If we don’t value originality, we won’t pay for it. If we don’t value the need to make a living, we won’t pay for it. In the end, it isn’t hard to imagine the cost.