July 22, 2011

An Ode to Borders

Filed under: Kids and Life,The Writing Life — jenny @ 3:03 pm

Each night, once we’d unloaded the car of its many, many bags (we haven’t mastered the art of traveling light, especially given the bags of books we accumulated along the way), and got the kids into their pullout sofa or rollaway bed or sleeping bags, I would write notes about the bookstores we’d seen that day.

I was just looking them over and found a scribbled line–written in a moment of jubilation after a day of visiting a total of six chains and independents–that almost made me cry.

The line said, Long live Borders!

At the Borders in Champaign, IL, I met a manager named Amanda. Amanda was so enthusiastic about Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day that she began making plans for how her store could celebrate it later this year while i was still talking to her. And she went to the trouble of finding this blog and leaving a comment after we’d left.

Later in the trip, I went to the Borders in Provo, UT, and met Kirsten. Kirsten took the bookmark for my forthcoming novel and said with an expression that I can still see, a look of earnestness and worry and plaint, “I really hope I’ll be ordering this 18 months from now.”

What is going to happen to all these people who don’t just sell books like they might sell tires, or groceries, but who have a genuine affinity for their product? (Some people might love to sell tires, or groceries. Kirsten and Amanda love to sell books). Will they find jobs at other bookstores? Will they feel disillusioned by an industry that can wipe out 11,000 employees in a single stroke?

A student wrote me the other day to ask about the impact of the loss of Borders on his publication dreams. I mentioned that once there was a Waldenbooks in virtually every mall, and now there isn’t, but other bookstores abound. I said that this industry is constantly in flux, but the one perpetual seems to be that books keep getting sold and everyone is always looking for the next big thing, which should give all authors hope and sustenance.

It’s not that the loss of Borders makes me worried for books, or even bookstores, let alone publishing. It’s that it makes me worried for a slice of our…humanity.

Books more than other products–tires, to my mind, not that there’s anything wrong with them–seem truly connected to people. The people who write and read and sell them. When a massive branch in this industry is cut, the trunk bleeds a little, too.

Maybe the one constant isn’t books or bookstores, but storytelling, as human a need as our need to eat.

This is a sad chapter in our story.


  1. I have a blog post all set for next week on this very topic. I’m devastated because Borders is the ONLY bookstore in my area. And now we are losing it. I don’t know what to do.

    Comment by Kelly Hashway — July 22, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  2. A very sad day for my niece who read 100 books a year and the closest bookstore was Borders. Now they have to travel to a Barnes and Noble which is a little further.

    Comment by Lisa Zhang Wharton — July 22, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

  3. What a sad day for book-lovers who love the smell of them, the feel of them, the joy of diving into the written word. Where will we take our children and grand-children when these places of wonder disappear altogether?

    Comment by Niamh Clune — July 22, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

  4. I’m so sorry to hear that, Kelly. Maybe a new independent will spring up to take Borders’ place? Niamh, I hope that day never, ever comes. Please check out the Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day group on FB to help fight that if you have a moment. Lisa, my admiration to your niece!

    Comment by jenny — July 22, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

  5. While I’m sad to see my local Borders go—along with the jobs—it’s not really a surprise. Borders refused to embrace technology, and the cost of running a big box store dictated that they had to have a huge mark-up on their products. When I can buy a new release from Amazon for $15, why would I go to Borders and pay nearly double that for the same book?

    Yes, Kindle, et al, helped kill the book chains, but the book chains did it to themselves, as well. Huge stores cost lots of money to run. Setting up shop in indoor and outdoor malls costs lots of money. Buying and reselling books costs lots of money. Spending $26 on a hardback book just isn’t an option for most people. eBooks by known authors and big houses (the books that sell at book stores) cost $6.99 – $9.99. Box stores can’t compete with that.

    And Borders, unlike any other store, refused to embrace the market. They buried their head in the sand and hoped it would go away.

    Someday, when my kids are in college studying business, Borders will be used as a model for what not to do: “Oh, we’re a big business, and this is the way we’ve always done it, and it’s always worked, so we’re not going to change our business plan.”

    Bad choices by near-sighted men in suits cost 11,000 people their jobs . . . and people like you and me a place to go buy books.

    Comment by Jeff Fielder — July 22, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

  6. I agree with you, Jeff–businesses that are weighed down by excess and old ways of doing things are liable to fail. But in terms of why spend 8 or 9 bucks more at a store than on Amazon, well, one answer is what you say–a place to go. One Borders employee told me that when a bookstore went out of business recently, it hung a sign on the door that said, Need a bathroom? Try Amazon.

    Bookstores are more than places to use the bathroom, though. They can be real hubs of their community–places for writers, readers, authors, and book or story lovers to meet, browse, wile away an afternoon.

    As you say, even with better practices the bricks and mortar will not be able to charge what an online vendor does. So how do we keep the places alive while allowing for consumers to save money on books?

    I met some booksellers this trip who are coming up with answers to that, but I think it’s a long way from settled yet.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Comment by jenny — July 22, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

  7. I hope that independents are able to fill the gap. I always thought that the Browsers Bookstore in Downtown Olympia, with their great, eclectic mix of new and used books was the best part of working downtown! I spent every lunch hour there. I hope that stores like that will spring up in places that never had them.

    Comment by Connie — July 22, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

  8. I stopped going to the local Borders because they stopped carrying new books in a series and repeatedly told me that book 12 was the last of the series–even after I showed them book 13, with my name on it. A business must give people good reasons to come in. A smile and a clean bathroom aren’t enough.

    Comment by Amber Green — July 22, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

  9. Thank you so much!! I’ll still support Take Your Child To A Bookstore Day on my own blogs!

    Fun fact: Kirsten at the Provo Borders is my old boss!! The Borders network is full of amazing people. :)

    Comment by Amanda Mae — July 22, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

  10. Jenny, my daughter and I went to her local Borders yesterday and picked up two huge sacks of books (mostly for 10 month old Sam, who will appreciate these particular books when he’s older). This is the place she meets a friend once or twice a month, and she says it’s where all the big names have signed over the years in this area (VA, outside DC). I do feel for all the employees. Their attitude isn’t too bad yet, but they must all feel sick. I wished our checkout guy luck and he appreciated that.

    Comment by Kaye George — July 23, 2011 @ 8:30 am

  11. I hope so, too, Connie!

    Amber, I agree with you–it must be about the books. I just always found the Borders I frequented to be great repositories of them. (When my kids heard this news, they cried out, “But they had every single book in the series [they are collecting]!!”) Now we will have to look up your series, too!

    Amanda, that is an amazing coincidence. If you could, I would love to hear where you and Kirsten wind up. I hope this somehow gives you both an even better path forward. And I will look for your blogs!

    Comment by jenny — July 23, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

  12. I’ve already had two crying jags (about this loss of my own history where Borders was concerned) and I’m about to start my third. Thank you for posting this, Jenny, so that I can share it on Facebook to show others that we’re not the minority they think we are!

    Yeah, everybody thinks I’m nuts. That’s okay — I’ll be nuts with you guys! :)

    Comment by Evelyn — July 23, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

  13. Oh Evelyn, you’re not alone, or nuts, and I’d be glad to know your like-minded friends as well. I’m about to post a more positive piece, but there is nothing for the loss of Borders but to mourn. If you’d like to, please share your own Borders history…

    Comment by jenny — July 23, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

  14. When Borders was first expanding into the northeast in the early 90s, one of the first stores they opened was a huge two-story location in downtown Philadelphia, complete with escalator. Another book-loving friend of mine lived in Philly at the time, and I would make the 2 hour drive on a Saturday morning, we’d have brunch, and then spend the entire day in Borders (our idea of a great time!). Those are wonderful memories, and it makes me sad that what started out as such a great places for book lovers became shadows of their former selves, and will now be gone. It’s easy to talk about a company in terms of “they did this” or “they did that,” without thinking about the fact that, if poor decisions were made, they were made by a relatively few individuals at the corporate level, but adversely affected thousands of dedicated employees nationwide. It’s those people I feel sorry for.

    Comment by Lauren S — July 23, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

  15. Thank you for sharing the memory of those special times, Lauren.

    Comment by jenny — July 24, 2011 @ 1:31 am

  16. Men in every age bemoan the passing of the old (horse and buggy, oil lamps, radio, bricks & mortar, books) and decry the coming of the new (automobiles, electricity, television, Amazon, e-books). Here’s Plato’s take on the written word:

    “If men learn this [the written word], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.” — Plato, Phaedrus

    Comment by Alek — July 25, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

  17. Yes, through the ages people have been sure X new thing would be the death of Y old. Typically Y doesn’t die. Video *didn’t* kill the radio star. Mass market paperbacks helped–not hurt–hardcover sales. Horses & buggies are probably not a good analogy because transportation in the early 1900s represents more of a paradigm shift than a simple alteration in technology. So I more than appreciate your take, Alek–it’s one I frequently speak up for myself.

    But I didn’t mean this post to express worry over the fate of books or bookstores. I meant it to express empathy for the many employees who were caught up in a bubble–read Richard Nash today on how bricks and mortar media outlets ballooned far greater than demand http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/07/21/nash.borders.books/index.html?hpt=hp_bn9–and now will have to find other roads to follow. They may be book roads, they may not; they may even be ultimately better roads–but it’s the upheaval I meant to honor in this post.

    Comment by jenny — July 25, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

  18. I don’t think, except for a temporary adjustment in the market place, the brick and mortar declines, the big boon in Ebooks marching on. But reading as sustenance will prevail as sure as the technology will evolve to its next plane.

    Comment by A. J. Grady — July 27, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  19. As a former bookseller and independent bookstore owner myself, I share your empathy for those — not unlike many traditional businesses — who will need to find other roads to follow. My path led me from corporate downsizing to running my own bookstore to teaching and, alas, semi-retirement. New career paths are also replacing the old. As with older generations, I am hopeful that a new generation will embrace and prosper in this brave new world.

    Comment by Alek — July 27, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

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