23 February 2011

Beyond Borders - The Borders Bankruptcy As Seen By a Former Bookseller

A bookish boy & his boyish books
It may surprise you to note that I haven't yet said anything about the Borders bankruptcy.  In part this is because I've been focusing my writing on other things than chasing the latest business debacle down the rabbit hole.  Honestly it was mostly because it's just too painful to think about.

As most of you know, I've worked for both of the major bookstore chains at one time or another and spent the longest time with Borders.  I worked for them in various capacities for the better part of nine years, mostly as a manager in one of their larger stores.

It was unlike any other job I've ever had.  I loved and hated it.  I formed friendships there that have persisted well beyond the walls of the bookstore and I formed ideas about books, publishing and bookselling that I carry with me to this day.  I also acquired the bulk of the library that currently weighs-down my house.  I think every writer should serve such an internship.

It genuinely pains me to see what is happening now.

I was in my local Borders last night.  My friends and I meet there weekly in the cafe to decide where to take our wandering 'supper club'.  They're closing our local store, meaning there won't be a bookstore of decent size within easy driving distance anymore. It's sad to see a town lose its bookstore.  Chain or independent, bookstores are the repositories of our cultural aspiration to be well-read and literate.

My wife and I usually buy a book or at least a magazine while we're there -- sometimes with a coupon, sometimes not.  Last night I picked up a nice book about cheesemaking and another one about gardens and a baking book I'd been thinking about getting anyway, and for the first time in a very long time, I had to wait in line to pay.  A friend of mine works nearby and she stopped in on her lunch break and she said at that time, the line stretched out the door.

A line at a bookstore that stretches out the door.  Imagine such a thing.

And here's the thing: the discount was only 20%, which is less than the weekly 30% off coupon that Borders has sent out to subscribers to their email list every week in recent memory.  Obviously people still value books.  They were shoveling them off the shelves with an impressive zeal.  And they were paying more for them than they would have a week earlier if they were really paying attention...

I wish I could tell you what that means, but honestly I don't know. Probably that people don't value something until they lose it, which is both cliche and true.

The other day, the Writer Beware blog posted a link on their Facebook page to an article written by a former Borders CEO which listed several systemic failures to manage resources and people and then argued vehemently that this wasn't management's fault.  Oh, and the dog ate his homework too.

Follow the link.  Read his story and tell me what you think.

To summarize his argument: Borders made a series of disastrous decisions that positioned them poorly to compete in the changing market.  They built a business to compete in the 20th century and not the 21st.  But it's not management's fault?

It's the same song we've been hearing from collapsed banks and other failed corporations.  Apparently that "Not Me" ghost that used to haunt the kids in Family Circus cartoons went back to school and got his MBA.  I hate that.  Those were management decisions and management failures.  You screwed up, own it, learn from it, make corrections and keep fighting.

If I had a publicist, I'm sure they would point out to me that it is ill-advised for an aspiring author to take a swipe at what will still (theoretically once they come out of bankruptcy) be a significant distribution node for my books.  Maybe.  But I started this blog to give my unvarnished take on publishing, writing and writing culture and here we are.

I hope Borders emerges from bankruptcy as a stronger, leaner and more agile company that learned from past mistakes.  Looking forward, I don't know if there's an ongoing place for bookstores the size of barns stocking enormous stacks of whatever the next Harry Potter novel will be.  I think probably not. While I don't think that print bookstores are the equivalent of buggy whip emporiums as some commentators are depicting them, I think that the day of the massive book barns is over.  If the national chains have a future, I believe it means getting to a smaller, lighter, faster vision of bookstores that encourages the passion and expertise of their booksellers and makes that their mantra.  Which means upper management that knows the book trade, not the grocery trade as Borders did.  Books aren't just another product, they're a thing unto themselves and those who do not 'get' that are not destined to succeed in this peculiar business.

As a bookseller, I saw the first signs of the approaching wave in the droves of browsers who used the booksellers' knowledge and expertise to find the book they wanted and then put it back, saying "Cool, I'll go order it from Amazon."

I'm still in contact with one of my former store managers and he said his partner had to talk him out of standing at the top of the escalator and shout "Where were all you people six months ago?!"   The answer, of course, is they were at their computers, pointing and clicking.

Last night, as I watched people shoveling books into baskets and hauling them up to the counter at Borders like they were stocking-up for the apocalypse, I wondered what it would take for a bookstore to inspire that kind of zeal all of the time...  but no answers came to me.

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