Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sic Transit Borders

I'm drafting this on 20 July while contemplating this morning's Wall Street Journal report that the Borders bookstore chain is to be liquidated.

My thoughts and emotions regarding this are mixed. On the one hand, the marketplace is a cruel place that benefits us enormously, the price of those benefits being the loss of some businesses or even industries or fields that we truly liked. Now, I love bookstores. So I don't like it when one folds and like it even less when the loss is of an entire chain.

Borders and I go back a long ways. I used to consult for General Motors and would fly to Detroit a couple of times a year to meet with its Economics Staff. Since there was plenty of dead time during those visits, I'd drive around the metropolitan area to amuse myself. One of the places I'd go was Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan. Michigan is a rare university that doesn't have its own student bookstore, relying instead on stores located near campus. And sometime in the mid-1980s I discovered the original, pre-chain, Borders store on State Street near the top of Liberty Street.

At the time, Borders occupied what seemed to be two stores with the adjoining wall knocked out (though I might easily be mis-remembering). Not a lot of sales space by later big-box store standards, but large for the time. Best of all was the selection. Many books that I hadn't seen before even in bookstore-rich Seattle.

Naturally, I was pleased when Borders was transformed into a chain of large bookstores; there was even a Borders on Charing Cross Road in London. And for ten years or so I preferred Borders to its main competitor, Barnes & Noble, though that might have been due to the Tacoma store that had a fine collection of history and military books that attracted customers from the major military facilities in the area.

Eventually Borders began to slip in my esteem. The process was gradual, so it's hard to put a finger on this or that reason why. The cumulative result was that Borders stores seemed to have skimpier book collections than nearby Barnes & Noble outlets serving the same community. (Savvy bookstore chains make allowance for local preferences. I noted the military factor for the Tacoma Borders and I'll mention that the B&N in Seattle near the University of Washington and some highly upscale neighborhoods has a selection of art book surpassing most other B&N stores -- though their store in Santa Monica has a comparable art section.)

Eventually Borders stores seemed to be devoting half their floor space for non-book items, so I'd find myself in a Borders if there was no other bookstore to browse or if I wanted a Seattle's Best coffee rather than a Starbucks. (Yes, I know Starbucks owns Seattle's Best and will take a hit with Borders' demise, but I like its coffee better than Starbucks.)

Now that Borders is essentially gone, I can't say that I really miss it in the concrete even though I do miss it in the abstract.

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