Good ideas often occur simultaneously, so it's not particularly strange that about a half-century ago, Leonard Riggio in New York and Tom and Louis Borders in Ann Arbor, Mich., began selling books with the idea of taking bookselling to a level never seen before, in places where it had never been. The idea of the literary superstore took a while to build, but by the mid-1980s it had entered lusty maturity. Think back, if you can, to the pre-Borders bookstore: charming and idiosyncratic, perhaps, but limited to the predilections of its owner. Or else sterile and brassy, designed for running in to snatch the latest bestseller and running out again. Most significantly, there was seldom any place to sit.
Borders and Barnes & Noble, rising and rivaling together, changed all that. They were intellectual superstores and cultural arbiters, designed to lure the shopper not just to come in and buy but also to come in and stay. Or as Tom Hanks' superstore owner says in You've Got Mail, "We are going to seduce them with our square footage, and our discounts, and our deep armchairs, and our cappuccino." They popped up not just in the midst of the metropolis, but also in the small-city strip mall; in Topeka and Des Moines and Springfield, Mo., they became the watering holes for high school clubs, unemployed grad students, Christmas-shopping grandmas, dating couples, and moms with a free afternoon. No spot was better for whiling away a rainy morning with a cup of Seattle's Best and the latest issue of National Review.
"Teach us to number our days," says Moses in Psalm 90-advice Borders should have heeded. Last Wednesday the company officially filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a move that surprised no one. Even now, in debt for over $320 million to publishers alone and scrambling to close about 30 percent of its 642 stores, company president Mike Edwards insists that prosperity is just around the corner. Once they rediscover the right stuff to compete in a digital book age, Borders will rise again. This is the kind of talk that has been staving off certain disaster for the last several years.
The long good-bye actually might have begun back in 1992, when the Borders brothers sold their baby to Kmart. Nothing changed in appearance, but without the personal controlling interest, Borders entered a period of serial management (the latest is former tobacco executive Bennett LeBow) and bad business decisions. Industry analysts point to three in particular: spending hundreds of millions to buy back stock from shareholders, investing in foreign expansion, and most importantly, failing to keep up with the times.
Amazon.com, launched by Jeff Bezos in 1995, may have looked like a bust in the Borders boardroom-it took years for the company to turn a profit. But Amazon was riding a wave of innovation, starting with its merchandising software and cresting with the Kindle, the first profitable e-reading device. Borders was the last major bookseller to take e-books seriously-only after partnering with none other than Amazon.
Both the little corner bookstore and the literary superstore are probably destined for the small niche market, like vinyl records and comics. We're vaguely sorry to see them go the way of passenger trains, but more and more of us prefer the ease and convenience of buying online. Borders will probably not disappear, but it will have to evolve. So will Barnes & Noble. It's a lesson certain other organizations will be forced to learn sooner or later: Are you listening, public-sector unions?