During a trip to Ann Arbor in the late ’70s, we made our first trip to Borders. It was the single best bookstore I’d ever been to, except for The Strand in New York City. Eventually, we did get to Powell’s in Portland, which is the bookstore Mecca for readers. But Borders had an amazing selection of books and cozy chairs for reading, which wasn’t anything you ever saw in a Waldens.
At some point in the early ’80s, Borders started to expand. We were living in Massachusetts at the time, and Jim made a trip to Pittsburgh to visit relatives without me. He enthusiastically reported that a Borders had opened just outside of Pittsburgh. While it wasn’t quite as overwhelming as Ann Arbor Borders, it had great variety.
A few years later, a Borders opened in Framingham, Massachusetts, not far from where we lived. While we were big fans of the various independent bookstores in Cambridge (especially WordsWorth), it was great having a bookstore nearby with free parking.
In 1993, we moved to Pittsburgh. Not deliberately, we wound up buying a house that was 2 1/2 miles away from Borders. Just after we moved, the deal on our Massachusetts house fell through. I couldn’t take months to look for the right job–I needed to get a job quickly so we could make two mortgage payments a month. I went to the Borders, applied, and had to take a test showing that I had a few clues about books. I was hired quickly and went to work.
One of the things that made Borders great in the ’80s and ’90s was it had a book database that was quite intelligent for its time. Stores were able to rapidly show their inventories and sales trends to headquarters. So Borders management could more easily react to sales trends than many other bookstores could.
But another thing that made Borders great was it demanded expertise from its clerks. Each clerk was responsible for a section of books. You had to shelve them and know about them. In my case, it was the computer book section (for the 10 years before I wound up as a sales clerk, I’d worked with computers). In the mid-90s, the number of books about computers, especially the number of books about this new tool, the Internet, grew rapidly. While an up-to-date online book database was certainly helpful, having people in the stores who really knew certain sections meant customers could get advice from knowledgeable salespeople.
In those days, Borders stressed Community involvement. Each store had a person whose sole job was to coordinate events at the store, both big events (in one year, we had Anne Rice and Oliver North) and small events (book clubs, readings for kids, local author promotions). These events were a great way to attract people who might not ordinarily come into Borders. And, it being the ’90s, Borders added coffee bars and music/video sections to their stores.
I worked at Borders for a little over a year full time, then worked a little over the holidays once I got a job with computers again. During the mid-90s, two more Borders opened in the Pittsburgh area. Borders did start to get a bad reputation from independent booksellers in those days. When Borders came into an area, independent booksellers tended to go out of business. Pittsburgh lost many independent booksellers at that time because they could no longer compete. Luckily, some niche sellers, like Mystery Lovers, Bradley Books, and the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon bookstores are still around.
Borders changed hands. Several times. I think it was owned by K-Mart at one point. That was when the notion that the sales management and sales staff really knowing books flew out the window. People were hired to run cash registers and not much else. Instead of individuals being responsible for a section, the books were stocked overnight. During sales hours, all clerks floated, so no one really knew the details of any of the sections. Managers were hired who, in theory understood retail, but didn’t necessarily understand books. Borders management had had excellent relationships with its vendors, but started playing games with vendors, beginning with the small presses.
And during the ’90s, Borders met up with its own giant-killer – Amazon, which made them even more conscious about costs. A brick and mortar operation like Borders can’t sell everything as cheaply as an online operation like Amazon can. But, even now, Amazon can’t give you advice about which book to get, it can only give you a list of books by a particular person or about a certain topic.
The one thing Borders lost track of was the idea that a good bookstore was more than just a collection of books: it was populated by people who understood books. Buyers wanted to browse. They wanted to talk to sales people who understood books. While many of us love Amazon, we still would like a place to browse and be surprised by books, the way were often were at Borders in the old days.
Also, Borders made it clear that community relations no longer mattered. People who ran community relations were fired. About the only events at Borders stores these days seem to be storytelling hour. Now, granted, book publishers don’t tend to send out many authors on book tours, and they focus tours more on primary markets like New York and Chicago. But, even without the big-name author tours, there are many ways to get the community engaged with the store, and Borders stopped doing most of them.
By 2001, my local Borders didn’t feel quite the same, but as I was looking for a part-time job, I went back to work there for a few hours a week. There was a new manager who didn’t seem to read much. There were fewer clerks. It was hard to find things as no one really knew any of the sections anymore. I eventually quit.
So bad trends that Borders started engaging in in the late ’90s have been exacerbated. Borders started playing games with all of their vendors, not just the small ones. Borders wants to blame all of its problems on outside forces. I won’t say that the publishing industry, which has also been rather slow to change, is completely blameless in the Borders (and Joe Beth’s) bankruptcy. But if Borders had had the kind of steady, forward-thinking management it had during its early expansion in the year 2000, I don’t think Borders would have declared bankruptcy now. Borders has no one to blame but its own ostrich-headed management.
If you’re curious, here are Border’s biggest creditors as if its bankruptcy filing. It’s disgusting when individuals lose their houses over a few thousand dollars that businesses can conintue to run without paying hundreds of millions of dollars of debt in a timely fashion. I hope Borders’ mostly underpaid employees are paid as long as they have jobs.
One thing that may save Barnes and Noble for now are eBooks. I prefer the Nook to the Kindle, so that’s what our family bought when we decided to get e-Readers. However, we still tend to buy books – mostly from Amazon, some from Barnes and Noble, some at science fiction conventions and some from other stores we run into. But, I never liked Barnes and Noble as much as I liked Borders for nearly 15 years.
Pittsburgh area note: It looks like the Borders in South Hills (my old store), Monroeville and Penn Circle are closing, but that the North Hills store is staying open. The South Hills store hasn’t been doing well recently and has always had parking problems, especially over the holidays.
9/30/2011: Some employees at Borders 20 (in Illinois) posted a letter about how they felt about Borders.
I probably never made this clear in my essay, but I do not blame the failure of Borders on the type of employees who worked there in the ’80s and the ’90s. Borders failure can only be laid at its upper management since the mid-’90s.