On September 18th (of 2011) the remaining Borders’ stores closed down, including the store in Highland, Indiana. I can’t really say I spent a lot of money supporting them directly (between Amazon, the local libraries and plain lack of time to dedicate to reading books), but I’ve always loved the place (and the places which the Borders of 1971-1991 supported).
So enough of pure mourning. The time has come (at least to my mind) for dissection and to see what lessons I can come up with that have been ignored (or just plain overlooked).
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First off, the bookstore didn’t die on September 18th, 2011, or when the Kindle came out, or when Amazon.com first came online, or when Oprah decided to cancel her Book Club. In essence, it dies when K-Mart bought out the Borders Brothers for a cool 150 Million in October of 1992.
Think of it: A company that had eaten up its markets in the seventies, that had just been beaten to submission by Wal-Mart at the markets where the two battled each other (smaller towns where the main city served at the county business center) and was saddled with a corporate culture that had no way to deal with changing times. Plus they had no understanding of the book market from their eight-years of owning Waldenbooks. And they were to take over Borders and take them national.
Fact was, I think that K-Mart knew what they wanted to do – take Borders and have them whip Waldenbooks into profitability. Bring in people who knew what they were doing, and set them on the task of fixing your problems. It makes sense, assuming you’re willing to get out of the way and let stuff happen. And when you consider that both K-Mart and Borders were based in Michigan at the time, you have a case of the Border Brothers knowing what money could do, but not necessarily what Money couldn’t do. (It probably also helped K-Mart that Wal-Mart hadn’t made its way to Michigan in a big way until the mid-nineties).
But it didn’t happen that way. Chances are the people at Borders told K-Mart what they wanted to do, and K-Mart tried to bargain with them…either that, or Waldenbooks proved unsaveable as it was and K-Mart wouldn’t admit that an investment was an absolute bust. Either way, the Borders leadership bailed; leaving Waldenbooks executives to run the whole thing.
In short, what was meant to be Borders was instead Waldenbooks with the Borders name plastered on the front.
Everyone who’s read up on the Death of Borders knows what happened next: the destruction of everything local-based and great about Borders (well, almost – I remember seeing ten whole shelves of witchcraft books at the South Indianapolis Borders. Makes me wonder what REALLY goes on in Indianapolis…or Washington DC, for that matter). Local control of appearances gets centralized into regions, a wide selection of books gets focused on the selling (and making) of bestsellers, the chain buys whole-hog into music at the time that Music started its slow, painful decline back into a niche market (Don’t think Napster, think CD burners and CDR-Ms for sale by the 50s in the mid-nineties), and the technological changes that shook the “intellectual property” world through the oughts were reacted to late, and piecemeal (think subcontracting to Amazon for web presence, think “fourth place in a three-man race” Kobo).
But there’s one other thing which has been de-emphasized, even by those who actually touch of the issue – Cool.
The thing about Borders was that it was a cool place for the intelligentsia and the cognoscenti. Find the place, and you would find people who loved books and were willing to tell you about that love. It was the sort of place where one could be a misfit, and you would be welcomed with open arms.
In short, it was Cool.
And as Borders struggled through mistake after mistake, the one thing that clung to the bookstore like a cardigan sweater on an amply-stacked twenty-something woman was its Cool. And while Cool could have held Borders through some of the mistakes (and probably acted as a corrective to some of them), there’s only so much that can be done when Coolness becomes the biggest commodity that one has.
In short, Cool can only go so far.
This I’ve had to learn over and over again as it seemed that every place that I liked closed up. Coffeehouses, movie theaters, bookstores, record stores and other sundry stores and places that I liked and thought cool, only to watch them swamped by circumstances, trends and plain lack of support. And while I can’t say that I’ve been blindly supportive of all these places, it’s not just my support that these places needed – it was the support of the marketplace, and over and over again Cool proved unable to make a place survive.
Borders had Cool until the end. And in the end, Cool was the ONLY thing it could claim to have.
And that was nowhere near enough.