Closing Borders—And I’m Not Talking Arizona

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.

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5 Responses to Closing Borders—And I’m Not Talking Arizona

  1. Pingback: Borders « blank slate press

  2. Richard Thomas says:

    Excellent post. Thanks for this.

  3. Red says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you refer to Borders being a casualty of a much larger trend in American Economics. One HUGE affect of increased communication (I.E. Internet) on “retail” business has been that shopping and purchasing are now two distinct things. I often shop at the mall, or at Target, because I like to interact with the products to determine which of a few items I prefer. Once I have decided what item I want, I then pursue the best price for that item. Sometimes that means I get on Amazon. Sometimes that means I step foot into a Wal-Mart. Sometimes, I seek another option. A perfect example is that, I’ve been looking for a new TV. I’ll go to Best Buy, American, Sears, etc to see what they have at what price points. I’ll take the information I can get from their clerks, and then I’ll probably end up finding and purchasing a similar item online, because even with shipping, it is cheaper. I don’t know how to practically reunite these two concepts for consumers again.

    BTW, I was fwd here from another Blog Post, that I was referred to by a Facebook reference of a friend.

  4. Roni Barbuto says:

    Excellent post. I recommend that you send this to the NY Times. I recall the days when Borders was a small bookstore, with a few shops here and there. It was hidden like a treasure in an old brownstone on Walnut Street (or was it Locust?) in Philadelphia. There were nooks and crannies to sit and make the important decision of which book was coming home. Hard decision since they carried only the best and I wanted to buy them all. It was the bookstore I brought my children to expand their love of reading. I remember the glaring title on Philadelphia Magazine – “Blue Light Special at Borders” … KMart had bought out the beloved Borders. It was only a matter of time that it began showing up in the strip malls.

    And like you, Anene, I’m not able to purchase when the item carries comes with such a price.

  5. lenaboo3 says:

    Great, insightful post. I’ve been that homework-doer in Borders (but I usually buy a hummus-snack or drink) who goes in, spreads out my work, and leaves without buying a book.

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