Thursday, November 26, 2009

What has Borders ever done for us?

So Borders has gone into administration. Everybody in publishing has seen it coming for a while. As was the case with Woolworths a year ago the credit insurers withdrew their backing and the big book companies had to stop supplying them on the grounds that they wouldn't get paid. It's bad news for 1,000 employees, I don't doubt it's heartbreaking for the management, who bought the company from the previous owners a year ago, and also the book publishing companies. This closure puts even more power in the hands of Amazon. At the moment this offers a splendid service for bookbuyers but sooner or later the temptation to flex its muscles is going to be irresistible. Before I bought Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" recently (list price of £25) I checked the discount prices at Borders and Waterstones before getting it from Amazon for £8.99 with no delivery charge. It takes a lot of coffee aroma to compete with that. The result of all this price competition is those tables groaning with three for two offers on paperbacks. You can afford the money for these books but with the best will in the world you can't afford the time to read them all.

Magazines will suffer equally from Borders problems. Since launching in the UK ten years ago the company has given a staggering amount of space to magazines, many of which couldn't possibly be finding buyers. There was no doubt some economic sense behind this. Magazines attract people into shops. Men killing time while their wives are in The Gap next door. Children who need entertaining. As a consequence it appeared to become a dumping ground for every cult title from every part of the world. A couple of years ago, when somebody launched a popular art magazine, I assumed it was the first one. I went into Borders in Charing Cross Road and discovered there were at least twelve.

If you're a Borders shopper and feel like putting food on my table by buying a subscription to Word at very advantageous rates there's a link here.


  1. Very sad to see the demise of Borders.
    The Charing Cross branch was a favourite of mine when I worked on Stephen Street. Borders accounted for about 5% of the overall circulation of Sight & Sound in my day, so it wasn't a huge outlet in the way that Smiths was, and still is I'm sure.
    In Glasgow I pop in about once a month to see what's on the shelves. Where am I going to buy Book and Magazine Collector now?

  2. 'You can afford the money for these books but with the best will in the world you can't afford the time to read them all.' That's exactly the psychology behind the threefer. You go into a shop to a buy a book, but see it is in a threefer, so, of course, you feel obliged to take advantage of the offer; otherwise you feel that you would be missing out. The third book is actually your compensation for buying a second book which you didn't really want, not a reward for buying two that you did.
    I’m sorry to see Borders go, though I won’t miss the tills all being in one location at the front of the store, a practice which always reminded me of the time when buying a book at Foyle’s was like trying to smuggle samizdat literature into Soviet Russia. They, and Books Etc who they took over, were my favourite of the high street book retailers, even during the many years when I worked for the opposition, the company which is now the last man standing regarding big bricks-and-mortar book selling chains.

  3. Anonymous10:21 am

    Borders is the only place that you can buy some magazines round here and will be a huge miss.

    However I have never seen Word in there (but I cancelled my subscription when you added the stupid "The" to the title anyway so it is not relevant)

  4. I'm a bit sad because it's another nail in the coffin of the shopping experience. Much like record shops, there's nothing to beat a good potter through shelves and racks.

    I'm also sad because we just started having breakfast in the coffee shop there before going to cheap matinee performances at the local showcase in Leeds.

    The internet is utterly wonderful, but there seems to be some collateral damage along the way that our chase for bargains might not have prepared us for.

  5. NomadUK12:20 pm

    The internet is utterly wonderful, but there seems to be some collateral damage along the way that our chase for bargains might not have prepared us for

    That has got to be a contender for the understatement of the past 20 years or so.

  6. Paul K12:20 pm

    The disappearance of bookshops will mean the disappearance of serendipity. You can't really browse online, and Amazon's recommendations tend to irritate rather than inspire; I find myself trying to work out just why they have recommended that particular book. You go online to order a specific title, whereas in a good bookshop you nearly always come across an unexpected title which intrigues you into purchase.

    Incidentally, you mention a cover price of £25 for Wolf Hall - does anyone ever actually pay that kind of price? Or is it, like the list price of a DFS sofa, an absurd list price which no-one actually pays but which makes the discounted price look even better?

  7. I'm sure nobody pays the list price but the best discounts I could find in the shops were still over £16. Whereas Amazon was half that.

  8. I find I need physical bookshops to browse childrens' books for gifts more so than adults. By having a browse you can really get a sense of what they are like rarely kids books on online without prior knowledge or reccomendation.

  9. I'll miss Borders. Combined, my local town and largest alternative are now Waterstone's only zones. Borders offered some competition, variety and unlike Waterstones still retained a reasonable stock of academic/professional books. Cambridge which once had (at least) three really good bookshops will now only have W's and Heffers. Trips there are going to be a bit less enjoyable.

    On pricing - not my industry but would the much maligned nett book agreement have made any difference to all this? (Assuming it would have applied to internet stores)

  10. Yes, we can buy books from Amazon. Yes, they are a lot cheaper and it's easier for a book to be delivered to your door. But it's a very sad thing that yet another book store is closing down, and even more so as a big seller of magazines. There's an experience in buying books in the 'real world' that you don't get online - same goes for magazines, though as everything heads towards digital, that might soon be forgotten in favour of ease of access and price as well.

  11. Anonymous9:02 pm

    "in a good bookshop you nearly always come across an unexpected title which intrigues you into purchase". Yes, in a good bookshop, not a chain (such as Waterstones), where the books seem to have been selected by computer and you nearly always find what you expected to find. Of the chains, Borders were usually big enough to come up with something interesting but the most interesting things never seemed to have any discount. For me, second hand bookshops offer the most fun bookbuying experience - you never know what you're going to find and, of course, they're not limited to books that are in print. On holiday this year I went to a fantastic bookshop called Westwood Books - heaven!

  12. Bookshops really need to improve their game if they are to survive.

    One problem is that it's actually very hard to find a particular book. If I go into my local public library, I can look at the catalogue, get a Dewey decimal number, and have the book in my hand two minutes after walking through the door. No bookshop I know has a system anything like as efficient.

    A couple of years ago I wanted to buy a particular book, which I didn't expect to be on the shelf of any of my local bookshops. I thought I'd be a responsible citizen and support my local bookshops, so I went into town to order it. I had the exact title and author. It simply wasn't on Waterstone's computer so I couldn't order it there. Across the road to Borders; same story. I went home to my computer and ordered it on Amazon. It arrived the morning after next. And it was several pounds cheaper.

  13. Bookshops don't just dump books on the floor in random piles you know. They do have them organized in sections and (usually) filed alphabetically by author. What's so hard about that? There is also a chance that the library book listed in the card catalogue will have been taken out by someone. It's not really any more efficient than a bookshop.

  14. That's all right if you're looking for a book that is clearly on a particular subject. (And not even then, sometimes. My local branch of Blackwell's used to display all the sports books alphabetically by author, regardless of which sport they were about. I pointed out the unhelpfulness of this arrangement to the manager, who told me 'That's just the way we do it.' It took a grumble to the managing director to get the arrangement changed.)

    Two books I've been looking for recently were 'The Junior Officers' Reading Club' about serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a book by Theodore Dalrymple about life as a doctor. Should I look in military history and medicine? Biography? Or where?

    And libraries don't have card indexes any more. My local library has a computerised database, which I can search from home, and it will tell me if the book is out on loan. Why can't a bookshop have a system like that?