By Harry McCracken | Monday, July 18, 2011 at 2:52 pm
And so it ends. Borders, which went bankrupt and announced plans to close hundreds of stores last February, is going to finish the job. Hilco Consumer Capital and Gordon Brothers are buying what’s left of the chain, and plan to liquidate the 399 remaining stores and lay off 11,000 employees. (The companies specialize in buying up once-mighty brands: they also acquired Polaroid and The Sharper Image.)
It’s tempting to blame e-books for Borders’ death. Amazon released the first Kindle in 2007; Barnes & Noble, while slow to respond, came up with the Nook two years later. Borders, however, only dabbled in e-books–selling Sony e-readers at first (via kiosks that shoppers always seemed to ignore when I checked) and more recently partnering with Canadian e-book company Kobo. The last time I was in a Borders, which was last week, the first thing I encountered when I entered was a great big table of Kobo readers. But it was clearly far too little, far too late.
But while the rise of the Kindle and its competitors may have helped do the chain in, electronic books clearly didn’t start Borders on its death spiral. The company been ailing for years–and shuttering stores along the way–and its strategies for getting healthy usually seemed to make things worse. I mean it wasn’t until 2007 that it decided that it made sense to have its own Web site rather than to outsource online sales to archrival Amazon.com. How hard would it have been to figure out that the Internet was going to be kinda important?
While Borders was busy giving the Web and e-books short shrift, it was also doubling down on the notoriously tricky business of running brick-and-mortar superstores. Until late 2010, San Francisco had four Borders stores–three of which were within a mile and a half of each other. I’m no retailing genius, but I couldn’t figure out how the city could support so many giant bookstores in so little space. Now we know it couldn’t: the three ones that were practically neighbors are all gone now, and the last store will close as part of the final shutdown.
(Borders’ smarter-but-also-challenged rival, Barnes & Noble, only had one store in San Francisco, although that, too, is now gone; there will be no major chain bookstores in the city once the last Borders is history. We’re lucky, though–a bunch of excellent independent stores which managed to survive the Borders/Barnes & Noble era are still with us.)
At the end, my local Borders was a truly odd place, with ratty carpets, rows of empty shelves, a CD section that practically had tumbleweeds rolling through it, and space dedicated to off-topic stuff such as noisy Dungeons & Dragons tournaments. I still shopped there, but I knew it was marking time.
Bottom line: If e-books didn’t exist, I’m pretty positive that Borders would have still collapsed in much the same way. It might have cratered even if the Internet had never been invented. I’m sorry to see it go, and particularly sorry for the folks who will be out of work. But the market worked. Borders is dying because it simply wasn’t very good at selling books in the 21st century.