Columns > Published on October 20th, 2011

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-chain bookstore like Borders, plenty of people did each day--right up until the company shuttered each of its stores in July. Which also meant that, until that time, plenty of publishers and booksellers, authors and editors, baristas, retailers, and representatives worked with Borders to stock the shelves, sign books, make deals and jerk lattes. So what now?

In the wake of the mammoth bookseller’s demise, it’s hard to see much of a change from the outside. Barnes & Noble is still clipping along, picking up right where Borders left off, and e-readers are sweeping the market, allowing not only for inexpensive book sales, but also making self-publishing a much more attainable (and sustainable) reality than in the days of Xeroxed chapbooks.

But it’s pretty tough to lose the sales of the nations third most popular book retailer, which, even in the worst of times was still responsible for between 12 and 14% of the market, without feeling so much as a ripple. Even months after the stores closed and the trucks pulled away, publishers, booksellers, authors, and employees of the giant are still trying to find their way in the post-Borders world.

To be clear, many economists and insiders saw Border’s ultimate failure a mile away--and planned accordingly. Easily confused with Barnes & Noble and less convenient than online book sales, the chain, which hadn’t posted a profit since 2005, simply didn’t have the brand loyalty it would have needed to survive in a climate that was already growing cold. Coupled with well-documented financial mismanagement, it was clear even before filing for bankruptcy that Borders wasn’t long for this world unless something changed. Nothing did, and as a result, after 40 years, they closed over 400 stores. But before the final clearance signs went up, booksellers were beginning to move their business elsewhere. Most, it seems, moved online.

Slow to jump onto the e-book (and digital music, for that matter) bandwagon, Borders market share was almost entirely in-store and on paper. Which, in the 2000s, was great--they made a killing when they expanded to CDs and DVDs. But they were unable to keep pace with the buying habits of tech savvy customers, leaving them behind long before the liquidation. As digital books and music continue to surge in popularity, it’s likely that the small niche Borders did manage to carve out among e-reader users will quickly be filled in.

Still, even in its last days, Borders was operating millions of square feet of not only selling space--but also recommendations and advertising. Whereas online retailers may try their best to target audiences with new products, the level of immersion that customers felt while browsing at Borders simply isn’t the same on a website--which has the potential to deal a major blow to presses large and small who relied on gift-giving and spur-of-the-moment purchases.

And of course, there’s possibly the biggest hole left by Borders: the human element. When an industry giant like Borders closes, it’s easy to imagine that, because no one was shopping there, it won’t be missed. But that is, of course, not the case. Not only was Borders one of only a few bookstores (if not the only) in many small communities, it was also a major employer, with nearly 20,000 employees in a given year. And in a time where book sales are down and employment is down, it’s tough to imagine a worse spot to be in than that of an experienced book retailer, manager, or corporate employee whose last job on the resume is Borders. The store’s closure, however, has prompted one-time competitors like Half Priced Books and Books-A-Million to send the message: come work for us. Books-A-Million plans to open 40 new stores, mostly in former Borders locations, including Maine, Portland, and Pennslyvania.

Not even half a year has passed since Borders sold off the last of its stock and shut the doors for good, but people have already begun to look for meaning in the chain’s closure. One article in Publishers Weekly cited many who have seen little to no impact in the aftermath--though one commenter was quick to point out that, aside from simply moving customers elsewhere, the loss of Borders is a loss for authors, who reached out to readers through in-store sessions and signings. Another echoed the sentiment, stating that, as the owner of a small press, the lack of showroom space would definitely hurt.

Which is, it seems, where a world without Borders looks most grim. While the digital reading room is expanding each day, the lack of actual book-centric space is definitely going to be a sore point for publishers, booksellers, and book lovers--particularly in communities where Borders was the only game in town.

About the author

Born and raised in Eugene, OR, Hanna Brooks Olsen is undersized and frequently overextended. She's a fan of physical activity, well-written sentences, and excellently employed profanities, and is unashamed to be utterly enamored by her little dog.

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