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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 media
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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& 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.

For the moment, even some of Borders' competitors are delivering eulogies. Rachel Weaver and Jason Smith at the Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois, told Publishers Weekly:

It's a sad day for reading when there are fewer communities with bookstores, a place where someone might stumble upon a book to read who otherwise might have gone home to their television or their Internet connection for entertainment and companionship. Frankly, speaking as two people who have each worked in the industry for close to two decades, it is just plain devastating., one of the best media business blogs, took an especially gloomy view of Borders' downfall. In a FAQ feature, Laura Hazard Owen concluded that liquidation is "unequivocally bad news for publishers and authors. Bottom line: The closure of Borders means fewer places to sell books (and promote books and book discovery). Publishers will have to reduce their print runs and shipments." By contrast, Oren Teicher, the CEO of the independents trade group, the American Booksellers Association, commiserated with the thousands of Borders employees losing their jobs but added, "We do not believe that the Borders closing is a bellwether for the future of brick-and-mortar bookstores nationwide. Rather, it is, in part an unfortunate right-sizing of bookstore landscape that has suffered from expansion in certain markets . . . we see opportunities for our current members to expand and for new stores to open."

Who is right? The answer is that no one really knows. But I especially liked the observation of Neil Strandberg, manager of operations at Denver's great independent, Tattered Cover. On PBS's Art Beat, he commented:

The work of Tattered Cover has been, then, to re-shape the business out of acknowledgment that printed book sales will continue to decline for the foreseeable future. We are smaller, retail-space wise than we were a few years ago and we will be smaller, I wager, a few years hence. Meanwhile we experiment with new product, inclusive of ebooks via our partnership with Google, food, gifts and services to local authors. I have every reason to believe that in ten years' time, there will be a retail setting that everyone recognizes as the  logical descendent of today's retail bookstores. The trick for all of us is to juggle declining printed book sales with new products and new services and the appropriate amount of real estate in the right location. . . . Taking a cue from some of the technologies that have been so disruptive, collectively, the indie community is crowd-sourcing the sustainable bookstore-like thing of tomorrow. One of us is going to figure this out.

Ultimately, I believe Borders' downfall had more to do with its own strategic mistakes than what is happening in the broader landscape of publishing. But I do share the sense of those who will miss Borders, not the flailing failure it was at its end but the great contribution it made to the availability of books of all kinds to so many people when it was at its best.

Borders RIP.