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The Downfall of Borders According to Peter Osnos

As you may have heard, Borders is in a bit of trouble. Not that they haven’t been on the brink of disaster for years, but with the announcements of the past couple weeks—including the suspension of payments to some publishers, resignation of several execs, closing of a distribution center, etc.—it sounds like they really are on their last legs.

There’s a lot to be written about this and the impact such a collapse would have on bookselling and book culture in general, but in terms of what went wrong, The Atlantic has an excellent article by journalist/founder of Public Affairs Books Peter Osnos:

So what happened to Borders? An early innovator in controlling inventory, there was expert staff at its Ann Arbor headquarters and store managers who believed in the value of book-selling. At its peak, Borders superstores had all the attributes of good book-selling—extensive selections, browsing space, coffee bars, and outreach programs to surrounding communities. In 1998, Borders shares hit an all-time high of $41.75.

To understand Borders’ decline, it is worth going back to its origins on State Street in Ann Arbor. The store was founded in the early 1970s by Tom and Louis Borders, University of Michigan graduates who developed an inventory tracking system that, by the standards of the time, was as sophisticated as computers allowed. When I came into publishing in the middle 1980s, I was impressed with the shrewd team of buyers who dealt with publishers’ sales representatives and the store staff that made the most of the simple aluminum fixtures where books were displayed. The Borders brothers began licensing their inventory system and began to expand to locations in Michigan and around Philadelphia. [. . .]

The Borders brothers decided not to stay in the book business, and in 1991 sold the small chain and inventory systems to Kmart for $125 million. In retrospect, that was when the trouble began. Kmart already owned Walden mall stores, which were an awkward commercial fit with the Borders culture. Kmart itself was at the start of a downward spiral, and in 1995 Borders was spun off in an IPO. For a time, the newly named Borders Group seemed to be working. Under the leadership of Leonard Riggio, Barnes & Noble was expanding also, and the competition between the chains seemed to create dynamic energy that benefited them both. The losers were the local independents who couldn’t keep up with the marketing and promotional resources of these national corporations. [. . .]

Fast forward past a crucial mistake of making Borders.com an affiliate of Amazon, and you end up in the 2000s:

bq.Meanwhile, the mall business was drying up, and Walden eventually all but disappeared. The role of the Ann Arbor-based experts in selection was gradually diminished. A series of expensive marketing roll-outs and loyalty programs never gained necessary traction. Most damaging was the management turnover, especially at high levels. CEOs and other executives flowed through the Ann Arbor offices, cutting staff, rounding up financing from private equity investors, and promising to catch up with the digital age. But Borders always seemed a step behind where they needed to be. Borders stores took on a generic quality as executives and investors lacked the knowledge and patience to address the chains’ mounting problems. .

There’s a lot of Monday-morning CEOing that can go on, but I truly agree with this almost anti-MBA comment he makes at the end of his essay:

Len Riggio, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and the successful independent proprietors, whatever their other business virtues and flaws, really have a deep attachment to books and the people who read them. But when Borders expanded, they brought in executives from supermarkets and department stores (all of whom insisted they were readers), and the result was a shuffle of titles and more downsizing against a backdrop of financial engineering, which only seemed to make matters worse.



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