A Blue Christmas at Borders

Three months ago I blogged here about the plight of the U.S.’s two major big-box bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, both of which have been struggling due to the combined effect of the economic downturn and intensifying competition online.  Of the two, Borders has been the hardest hit.  Thebookseller.com reports that the chain may run into a “liquidity shortfall” early next year.  In layperson’s terms that means Borders is practically out of cash, something that doesn’t bode well for its long term survival.  The news isn’t much of a surprise, however, coming as it does on the heels of several rounds of layoffs this year and major changes in the company’s top leadership.

Well, the situation at Borders is finally hitting home — and by home I mean my home, Bloomington, Indiana.  About a month ago the company announced that it would be closing our local Borders branch just after the first of the year because it has been under-performing, relatively speaking.  Here are some (quite depressing) photos of what the outside of the store looked like last week (the “B” got burned out in a recent fire):

Everything at the store is being sold off, including not only the books but also the displays, furniture, and fixtures.  Companies only do that when they’re in grave trouble.

I’ve been patronizing this particular Borders since 2002.  Back then the place was abuzz with people, energy, and, of course, merchandise.  Shelves brimming with books.  A crowded, non-stop cafe.  Much meeting and milling about.  I loved going there to shop, write, and even just hang out in the company of books — lots of them.

But sometime around 2007 or 2008 I started noticing a change.  The shelves were becoming emptier, the cafe was quieter, and there seemed to be less and less traffic in the store.  The whole ambiance had changed, and it was about then that I started seeking out other places in which to do my book shopping and writing.

In the end, I suppose I was part of the problem.  I feel awful about the remaining employees, who are about to lose their jobs.

Not long after the Bloomington Borders opened in our Eastland Plaza shopping mall, in 1996, a nearby independent bookstore called Morgenstern’s shut down.  I don’t know much about Morgenstern’s, admittedly, since I moved to Bloomington several years after it had closed. Having said that, I find that most of the non-chain bookstores here in town do a bad job of stocking books of interest to academics, which is surprising given all the Indiana University faculty who live here.  In any case, I don’t want to attribute the store’s closing strictly to Borders (or to Barnes & Noble, for that matter, which opened a Bloomington branch later the same year), even though it seems pretty clear that Borders had something to do with Morgenstern’s demise.

With the closing of our local Borders, Bloomington is about to become something of a one-horse town — and by one-horse I mean, Barnes & Noble.  There are other bookstores here, of course, including Boxcar Books (a non-profit), Howard’s Bookstore, and a great second-hand shop called Caveat Emptor.  But the disappearance of our 25,600 square-foot Borders will be a tremendous hit locally.

It’s a sad state of affairs.

A little over a decade ago the bookstore chains seemed almost invincible.  New branches of Borders and Barnes & Noble were opening practically by the day.  Lots of indies fell by the wayside in the meantime, but at least there were large, well-stocked bookstores cropping up in their stead.

Today, it seems as if we’re headed in the opposite direction.  Physical bookstores seem poised to become less a part of the experiential landscape of daily life.  Call me a dinosaur, but I doubt that bodes well for the future of books and reading.

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