Bye, Bye, Borders?

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"Needless to say, I'll never shop at Borders online again."  That's Kevin Drum, discovering that Borders apparently doesn't discount its online books--at least, books that aren't bestsellers.  


A lot of people seem to have decided not to shop at Borders, lately.  The company's been struggling for years, as eBooks and Amazon cut into its market.  Unlike Barnes and Noble, the company never really successfully transitioned to digital, leaving it with a lot of physical inventory and real estate assets that are rapidly becoming albatrosses with declining sales.  The company is desperately trying to renegotiate its debt, including payments to vendors.  And now ugly rumors are flying that management is telling people to start looking for other jobs:

This is rumor, since I can't get anyone to go on record, but multiple sources (all of whom are employed by Borders) are telling me that employees of several different Borders stores were told during conference calls this week that "things are bad" and "if they have an opportunity for employment elsewhere, they should take it." This comes on the heels of last Friday's stock slide after news that Borders was missing payments to creditors. Personally, I hope they are wrong. I like Borders. They've always been very supportive of me.

Personally I hope they're wrong, too; like most writers, I like bookshops.  I suspect most of us had our destiny shaped while we were sandwiched behind the bookshelves at our local dealer.


On the other hand, like most of the writers I know, I rarely go into bookshops anymore.  Instead, the UPS truck stops at our house at least once a week, thanks to Prime, and more and more, I order Kindle books straight from my iPad.  I know that I am missing something--the serendipity of browsing through the bookshelves--which I have never replaced at Amazon; much as I love the convenience of online shopping, I never find anything that I am not looking for.

This is when the communitarians start looking for a government rule that will make it harder for people to buy books online; the environmentalists complain about all the energy wasted on shipping; and the moderate nostalgists start urging people to support their local bookstore.  But I'll go by a combination of revealed preference and introspection:  the world may be better off without Borders, even though I (and everyone else who has stopped shopping there) likes the idea of its existence.

The communitarians will argue that this is market triumphalism--that losing bookstores we like is simply a collective action problem. This is theoretically possible, but there's little evidence of it outside of thought experiments.  After all, if I could personally save Borders by hauling my carcass down to the store once a week, instead of shopping at Amazon, would I?  The sad answer is, probably not.  After all, I never go there.  What would I be saving it for?

And it's not just that I'm lazy, though there is that.  The bigger problem is that while Borders lets me find things I'm not looking for, Amazon always lets me find the things that I am.  In the good old days of local bookstores, I frequently went without books that I knew I wanted, because it was such a pain in the butt to order them.  Now if I know I want to read a book, I can do so in short order.  Ultimately, this is a bigger boon than the occasional undiscovered gem--particularly since there are still libraries.

Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase "creative destruction" to describe the process of churn whereby old companies, technologies, and industries die, to be replaced by new ones.  This process has brought us today's prosperity, and is a massive force for good in human history. But it is not without its sadness.  You don't have to want to stop the process, to mourn for the real losses it entails.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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