The End of Borders and the Future of the Printed Word

The demise of America's second largest book retailer signifies a major change in the marketplace for printed mediaborders-ap-Angela J. Cesere-jpg

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Manhattan's West Side might have more book readers than anywhere else in the United States. Until recently, the thriving cultural stretch of Broadway that includes the theater district, Lincoln Center, and some of the city's best venues for quality movies was also choc-a-block with enormous bookstores. The high-rise Barnes & Noble emporium opposite Lincoln Center closed several months ago because of soaring rents, and now the expansive and elegant Borders superstore in the Time-Warner Center on Columbus Circle is on the way out, as the chain goes into liquidation.

So, in this flourishing area of the city -- a span of more than three miles -- there is no longer a general interest bookstore. There are still many good places to browse the aisles for books elsewhere on the island -- The Strand, Posman's in Grand Central Station, and Book Culture in the Columbia University neighborhood, among others. Barnes & Noble is still going strong -- its superstores in strategic locations are bustling, B&N.com has been gaining traction, and the Nook is clearly the runner-up to Amazon's Kindle as an e-reader favorite. Nonetheless, the demise of Borders signifies a major change in the marketplace for books. The unraveling of the country's second largest book chain means a tremendous boost for digital retailers such as Amazon and the potential for a self-confident Barnes & Noble and the stronger independent stores to benefit by adding customers.

But there is no doubt -- as I have written many times in recent months -- that the book business is in a period of change so dynamic that any outcome is possible, from an era of exciting expansion to a precipitous decline in sales at brick-and-mortar stores that undermines the revenue base of publishing. A year ago it would have seemed inconceivable that Broadway's biggest bookstores would be shuttered.  

In fact, until last weekend, I couldn't really fathom that Borders, for all of its mismanagement and losses, would not find a way to continue, in the jargon of bankruptcy, as a "going concern." But once the last stores are closed in September, all that will remain of this once proud and sophisticated bookseller will be remnants: the brand name (for sale), the memberships in its customer loyalty program, a struggling website, and a minority interest in the Kobo reading device. Books-A-Million, a regional chain in the south and midwest, offered to take over the leases and contents of up to thirty-five venues across the country, from among  Borders remaining 399 stores (at its peak Borders had almost 1,200 stores). But that deal fell through.

It would be wrong to assume that the demise of Borders is symbolic of publishing Armageddon. And yet, the disappearance of Borders and the uncertainties that Barnes & Noble doubtless faces as it is accommodates the pace of change to digital reading are extraordinary developments. In the first five months of 2011, e-readers sales are up by 160 percent over the previous year, but there has been a sharp drop in revenue from printed books, attributable in large part to the Borders collapse.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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