The announcement that the remaining 399 Borders stores in the US are to close is sad news indeed.
Even for the most optimistic it was not a surprise, following as it did the announcement of bankruptcy in February and the inability to purchase stock on credit—however the closure plunges the book trade further into new and confusing waters.
From the first time I went into a Borders store as a customer (the Oxford Street flagship days after it first opened) I was enthralled. It seemed as if every book I could possibly want was there, as well as a fantastic CD and video department (remember them?) and just about every magazine published. Added to this the store was open until 11pm and had a café selling new-fangled coffee and muffins. Borders felt young, vibrant and exciting, as if the best of America had been transplanted over here. Borders was a great place to meet friends: you could get there early, browse the shelves and nine times out of 10 buy something you weren’t actually looking for. The serendipity of a visit is a key part of what we have lost.
I was lucky enough to work in the UK marketing department as the company grew from three stores to almost 40. As well as opening in traditional bookshop cities such as Oxford and Bristol, Borders also brought their brand to retail parks in places like Cheshire Oaks. This was the era of the “third space” between home and work and Borders filled it perfectly, becoming as much an entertainer as a retailer and creating community and cultural hubs.
Wherever the blame lies—not going online effectively early enough, not backing e-readers, high upper-management turnover or lack of diversification of product ranges and store footprint—the fact is that Borders' “bricks and mortar” superstores were ideally suited to a world without e-commerce. As the mass adoption of the internet grew through the first 10 years of the 21st century, they were no longer the category killer brand they were. While the largest Borders store would stock 200,000+ different titles, the internet could stock, or at least list, every title in print.
As with companies like Woolworths, it is not an easy thing to steer a large company when the market is changing so quickly. Added to that is the fact that Amazon was willing to invest for many years without seeing a return. Perhaps the future on the high street now lies with smaller stores and many American independents will benefit in the short term at least. There are many out there where you can see the same ethos of customer service, recommendation, author events and enthusiasm for what they sell as was shown by staff of Borders.