Friday, February 11, 2011

Borders on the edge

I am not happy that my prediction about Borders seems to be coming true. No one who lives by books is happy to see any bookstore close its doors.

At the same time, I do not subscribe to the theory that ebooks are putting Borders out of business. Robert McCrum believes that Borders is falling victim to “internal mismanagement.” Bob Warfield suggests that the store “got greedy and quit serving the customer.”

I wonder if the reasons don’t lie elsewhere. In Houston, I lived two minutes from a Borders store. And though I held a Borders card loaded with plenty of Borders Bucks, I rarely went there—even after a long day of writing when I needed to flex my tired Sitzfleisch. (I preferred to wander the aisles of Lowes.) I found that I had less and less patience for the pretentiousness of the store with its hip and up-to-the-minute Staff Recommendations, its placards inviting me to another reading by a local mediocrity, its tables piled with the latest variety of multiculturalism to take literary form, its easy chairs strategically located where a slumping shopper could hold aloft his copy of David Mitchell or William T. Vollman so that I could be sure to admire his taste and judgment, its library desks occupied by high-school kids whispering and texting when they were supposed to be cramming for the SAT.

Inevitably, someone would be sitting in front of the shelves where I wanted to look for a book. Now, I am physically unable to ask someone to move aside when he can see for himself that he is blocking another person’s way. Besides, when I would finally circle back to the shelf after half an hour of lurking elsewhere, the book for which I was searching was never to be found. Borders carried plenty of books that were getting the buzz, but of those that had stood the test of time, not so many. If you needed a specific title by George Eliot or Joseph Conrad, and if you wanted something better than a Signet or Bantam, you were wasting your time.

Borders tried hard to look like a salon, not a bookstore. Whenever I would climb upstairs where Literature was located, I would be struck by the open space with its loosely arranged furniture. I could not help imagining the shelves that were lost to reading nooks and gathering spots (to say nothing of the vast expanses handed over to the coffee shop and musical recording sections). After a while, I felt strange and out of place, even unwelcome, in the store. The accidental discovery was unlikely to occur there, unless I stopped reading the book pages or listening to literary gossip, and the comprehensive plunge into an unfamiliar sub-world of books was impossible, because (except for popular and “literary” fiction) the sections of the store got smaller and smaller every year. My private test for a bookstore is the size of its philosophy section. At Borders, philosophy was lucky to get two short shelves. Even then, most of the titles would be by Derrida and Foucault.

I will not be happy to see Borders go, even though I have not been a regular Borders customer for several years now. But its demise will say nothing whatever about the book trade, except perhaps that a bookstore ought to sell books and not a book-furnished pastime.


PMH said...

If my experience in higher education is of any value, I believe that Borders' fate follows not the fate of books or e-books, but of reading and its perceived value (a more remote cause). E-books are supported by technology, which is hip, and more cute toys, but in the end they will only work for people who want to read, and spend money to read. I think this population is decreasing and, ironically, I even see it decreasing among people who claim to want to write. People want to be authors, but they don't want to be readers and what they do read they are chary to spend much money upon.
Another irony: people will spend hundreds of dollars upon a gadget or upon multiple gadgets to read books but complain about spending anything over $3.99 for the book to put on the reader.
To quote Kosinski's character, people want "to watch."

Jerard said...

A good critique of what is wrong with Borders. Over here in the UK Borders went bust over a year ago. The huge store near me is still just a huge empty husk. But it means that we have just one bookshop chain holding a monopoly position - Waterstones - while independents struggle. And Waterstones is much worse than Borders with its relentless pushing of the latest trendy bestsellers. I miss Borders for all its shortcomings.

Hannah said...

I must admit that I am heartbroken. I grew up in the rural South--a place with no bookstores whatever. In college I discovered the great joys of bookstores. And when I was a graduate student, a nearby Borders with a terrific history section opened nearby. There were chairs and coffee--a place to meet friends and hang out in the company of great literature. Although Borders no longer has that mystique for me, it is still the only bookstore within walking distance of my house. (I can walk to three unique public libraries and one college library, though, so if Borders must close, I will survive.)

Shelley said...

Poor Borders. It's the only bookstore in my city where you don't have to brave the mall parking lot to get in.

And it's not only Borders lacking George Eliot and Conrad.

Take a look at your local library shelves.


Esmee Reine said...

Thank you for sharing such a great post. I love bookstores. Borders is one of my favorites. I have become a lazy bookstore customer. I prefer to order from Amazon because of its almost unlimited inventory and I don't have to get out of my pajamas. However, Amazon cannot replace the physical atmosphere of a bookstore. I guess I need to prepare myself for print books to be completely replaced by kindles and the such. We are watching the end of an literary era. *Sigh*

Anonymous said...

I love this posting. Where I live we don't get any real franchise bookstores like Borders but you make it sound wonderful, and a loss worth grieving. I am forced to buy most of my books from - the death of Borders?

Audrey said...

It was scary enough that buyers--individual people who have good moods and bad--for two bookstore chains were making the decision about which books would be carried and which would not in thousands of stores in this country.

Now we're down to buyers for one chain.

Most of the writers I know are not having their books picked up by Barnes and Noble. It's not an easy time to be an emerging author. The demise of Borders will not help.

Hal said...

You struck the cord with you comment "I don't feel welcome anymore." Everyone that works at my Borders seems to have a chip on his or her shoulder. And this is a Border that is staying open.