Bye Bye Borders: What The Chain's Closing Means For Bookstores, Authors And You
The verdict has come in, and it is official: As of this week, the bookstore chain Borders is going for liquidation in bankruptcy court, which means that the company will dissolve, closing 399 stores and laying off approximately 10,700 workers in the process. After a last-ditch attempt to sell at auction (with no luck), the group announced its plans on Monday. Borders is no more.
In a way, the closing feels like an inevitable end. In February, Borders filed for bankruptcy and closed a third of its stores. Long before that cry for help, the company had already begun to founder, unable to keep up with its competitors in the aggressive e-book market and losing online business to web-savvier brands like Amazon and B&N. When the bankruptcy papers went through, Borders owed over $270 million to its creditors, including every major publishing house in the business. The end of the chain will come as a heavy blow to those houses, who will likely not recoup their financial losses; but for the everyday consumer, the chain closing feels like just another casualty in the long and drawn-out decline of the paper-book market at large.
But the fizzling of Borders brings with it severe consequences for the publishing industry — and the consumer. It has the feel of a "Too Big to Fail" situation, albeit in the smaller-stakes book world, in which the toppling of a giant will send ripples into several smaller pools, and as with the crashing of the financial markets, it's almost always the little guy who loses out.
A better explanation: Borders going under means that hundreds of people beyond its own employees will lose jobs. Because it was one of the top booksellers in the country, publishing houses had entire departments dedicated to working with Borders and its sales teams. It also means that suddenly, publishers have lost a major thoroughfare for book sales, one of their biggest. An entire arm of book sales has been amputated.
Kathleen Schmidt, a book publicist, provided this perfectly concise explanation on Twitter: "Here is how the Borders closing will impact publishers: Say you have a bestselling author and you usually do a 1st printing of 100K books. Out of that 1st print of 100K, B&N/Amazon would take a large quantity, then Target, maybe Costco/BJs/Walmart, then Borders, then indies. If you're an author with a 1st print of 30K (a lot), you prob don't have price clubs or Target. You have B&N, Amazon, Borders, and indies. Now, take Borders OUT of that 1st print equation. Also consider that B&N is conservative with numbers these days. That 30K turns into 15K."
Granted, the reduced print runs for books don't mean that fewer books will sell, but Borders closing does have a huge effect on how many physical copies will be out in the world. It is yet another nail in the coffin of the old-fashioned brick and mortar, paper and gum book business as the world zooms toward an ever-more-digital model. So what Borders closing means, at the basic level, is that fewer paper books will be produced. There is no other outlet big or solid enough to absorb the blow; there is nowhere else for all those paperbacks and hardcovers to go. The most logical thing to do is to stop printing them.
This harsh reality can feel tragic to those who love the physicality of books and still haven't gotten used to the Kindle, but a new generation is learning to adapt to e-reading. I suspect that the children who are just learning to read today on iPads won't grow up nostalgic for the Borders that they never knew. I certainly don't feel wistful about no longer getting to snag CDs at Sam Goody. There is no other future for reading but a digital one, and getting misty about the decline of tangible books is an exercise in futility. Reading itself has never been more popular, even if formats are in flux.
That said, the aspect of Borders' implosion that troubles me is that there will be 399 fewer places to take part in the communal act of book buying, which is a completely separate activity from reading (see: regular bookstore lurkers who never purchase a thing). As corporate as it has become, Borders began as an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1979. Tom and Louis Borders bought out the aging Wahr's store at 316 South State, and they hired a local rare books restorer to stock it lovingly with unique reading material. The restorer kept a binding workshop upstairs. It expanded into the impersonal, sprawling latte experience that we know today, but Borders started small, and it grew out of a love for the shared browsing experience.
Bookstores are very special places, even the behemoths. They provide a space for cultural dilettantism. You can get lost in them for hours, perusing covers and picking up obscure titles. They are dedicated to discovery and are curated by some of the most dedicated retail employees around (even to get hired at a large corporate chain, one is still required to exhibit a sharp passion for reading).
Small bookstores may be celebrating Borders' demise (Nora Ephron reference: the Shop Around the Corner finally has a shot against Fox Books!), but they also know that this is a sign that these are the hardest of times. Bookstores are fighting for their lives, day in and day out. Only the most relevant, vibrant, dynamic, essential, committed, nimble, involved and enticing independents will survive the e-book tsunami. Independents are prepared to be all of those things — far better than a giant organization like Borders was — but they need to bring a lot of ammunition.
What about you? Do you believe that the bookstore experience will survive despite this latest blow? Are you dedicated to your local bookseller? Tell us about a bookstore that has meant a great deal to you. And while you're at it, if you loved your local Borders, head to Twitter and use the #thankuborders hashtag to let them know.