Commentary

Borders Crossing Into The Hereafter

My 26-year-old daughter reacted nostalgically to the news yesterday that Borders was closing its doors, laying off its 10,700 remaining employees and liquidating its stock. "I bought my first Pearl Jam CD at a Borders," she recalled.

Tellingly, while she continues to buy paper books (primarily from Barnes & Noble and Amazon), I can't recall the last time she has purchased anything other than digital music. But all indications are that e-books are finally hitting their stride, too.

"The news exposed a deep fear among publishers that bookstores would go the way of the record store, leaving potential customers without the chance to stumble upon a book and make an impulse purchase," write Michael J. De La Merced and Julie Bosman in the New York Times. "Publishers have worried that without a specific place to browse for books, consumers could turn to one of the many other forms of entertainment available and leave books behind."

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Borders president Mike Edwards concluded a six-paragraph letter announcing the developments to employees with "you've done me proud." Earlier, he explained: "We were all working hard towards a different outcome, but the headwinds we have been facing for quite some time, including the rapidly changing book industry, e-reader revolution and turbulent economy, have brought us to where we are now."

Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Feb. 16. An offer by Najafi Cos. that creditors rejected last week has apparently left the 399 remaining outlets and the online operation without any viable takers. Liquidation, through a group led by Hilco Merchant Resources and Gordon Brothers Group, could begin as early as Friday although there are some (low) legal hurdles to jump.

The development has wider implications than the loss of the retail outlets, which not very long ago numbered upwards of a thousand.

"Thousands of people whose job consisted of talking up and selling books will eventually be doing something else, and that's bad for authors, agents, and everyone associated with the value chain in books," Simba Information senior analyst Michael Norris tells the Wall Street Journal's Mike Spector and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg.

Edwards was apparently left holding a hand dealt to his predecessors.

"I am a PROUD BORDERS GM, and knew eventually this would happen," writes Glenn Stewart of Worcester, Mass., in a comment to Publisher's Weekly's brief about the closing. "Before joining the company there were too many CEO's with different visions. I DO NOT BLAME MIKE EDWARDS, I APPLAUD HIS EFFORTS FOR FIGHTING FOR THE COMPANY'S LIFE LIKE A SCREEMING BANCHIE."

According to his LinkedIn profile, Edwards is a "28-year retail veteran who has led brand transformations and business turnarounds for some of the leading names in the industry." He joined Borders Group in September 2009 as EVP, chief merchandising officer, and was appointed president and CEO of Borders, Inc. and president of Borders Groupin June 2010." Previously, he was chairman of Muttropolis -- which "does not sell pets, [but] delights shoppers with the community feel of a friendly dog park and a personalized opportunity to pamper their furry friends" -- for three years.

The first Borders was an 800-square-foot shop started in 1971 in Ann Arbor, Mich., by brothers Louis and Tom Borders. Its megastore empire was still expanding even as it was losing its "edge with consumers" as they shopped more online, Greta Guest points out in the Detroit Free Press. In response, it "started stocking more gifts, candy and impulse items. It also bought Paperchase stationery, stocking it in stores when e-mail had made handwritten letters a dying art."

An Ann Arbor councilwoman who once bought 14th-century music from knowledgeable staff at her local store tells Guest that the end was long in coming. "I'm devastated," says Sabra Briere, "but I was devastated ... years ago. People cheapened what Borders had to offer, and when it wasn't as splendid as it used to be, that became a reason not to shop there as much."

Sadly -- I initially typed "ironically" but that's really not the right word here -- I received an email offer this morning that contains the following teaser: For just $20, upgrade today to Borders Rewards Plus and get $10 in Borders Bonus Bucks redeemable 8/18/11 - 8/24/11. How's that for an offer I can easily refuse?

I was intrigued by one of the titles offered in the email: Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, which was offered at $13.78, or 47% off the list price, plus free shipping if I signed up for a 30-day free trial of its ShopRunner program. Sounds like a pretty good deal, no?

But when I put the title into Google, what came up first? Exactly what we all expect: Amazon, where the price is $13.00 and two-day shipping is also free with Prime membership. Borders, by the way, wasn't even in the top 20 Google hits, suggesting some poor SEO on the part of its online division.

In short, Borders has long reminded me of the diminutive kid who works out religiously, eats all the right things and lives and breathes his chosen sport but always comes up short compared to the seemingly effortless achievements of his naturally gifted teammates. Too bad, because I definitely identify with that diminutive kid.

2 comments about "Borders Crossing Into The Hereafter".
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  1. Tanya Gazdik from MediaPost, July 19, 2011 at 8:37 a.m.

    I have fond memories of making pilgrimages 20 years ago to the Borders in Southfield, Mich. one of the first ones in the metro Detroit area. The selection was amazing and so were the employees. It was a destination. You can't say that about many retail stores anymore, they are a dime a dozen.

    My only hope is that the closing of the Borders near me in Grosse Pointe, Mich. will result in an independent book store springing up in the area. Now *that* would be a silver lining.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 19, 2011 at 10:08 a.m.

    There used to be many types of bookstores in my area. Now there is one and one only, Borders. From my perch, I have seen the very large 2 story store flounder via marketing, service (they'll let me know when the book comes in in a couple of weeks and no call and no book), mis-merchandising big time (way overpriced for starters) and shelfs without books, etc. This store is in a small shopping center with good free parking and other popular stores (as many other Borders), with enough space to invite other venues in to share their expensive space costs and drive traffic. Obviously, the top floor management did not/would not hire and listen to top shelf people to expand the business. This closing is a very bad commentary about our country.

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