Archive for July 19th, 2011

Death of a Giant

There’s nothing graceful about watching a company go out of business.  It’s awkward, it’s drawn out, and in the end they’re not the stores they once were.  That’s what I felt walking through the Tysons Borders for the last time a few months ago.  The upstairs was closed except for fixtures sales, the fiction section was consolidated onto just a few shelves, everything was just not right.  I’d gone in a way to pay final respects to a store that was my bookstore for three years when I lived less than a mile up Route 7 from it.  It’s sitting empty now in an awkward little building that was never easy to get to and had been half empty for years already since losing first its Best Buy then its Filenes Basement.

Now, the rest of them are going away.

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise.  The first round of cuts really did stink of desperation, and the company has been struggling to hold on even with the lower overhead.

So that means losing the Borders now closest to me in Bailey’s Crossroads.  It always was the jewel location for Northern Virginia, and even when I had issues with how the company was starting to run other locations (consolidation of genres, bad pricing practices) it was a location I was always happy to go to because they were doing things just a little bit better.  It’s where I got to meet Alton Brown at a signing.  People were sitting around cross legged listening to him as he signed, waiting for their numbers to be called.  I commented that he was like the Buddha, and his publicist suggested he feed us all with loaves and fishes.  He pointed out “that’s the other guy” and he really would like to avoid how things ended for him.

That means losing the Borders in Springfield.  I was surprised it survived the first round of cuts.  It moved into the area around the mall, one of the first salvos in a box store takeover that would leave Springfield Mall a shell of its former self.  It drove out the Super Crown, which had been my first big box book store, but it was so much nicer.  So much bigger.  So much better.  I would go there just to go there on the weekends, even if I wasn’t shopping for something.  I never was much of a mall rat, but I was a Borders rat, finding new things to read and just enjoying the presence of so many books.  It was a magic place.

That means losing the Borders downtown.  The one that my wife and I would always go to when running early to an event downtown.  We’ve killed any amount of time there waiting for a movie at the E Street, or just getting in from the oppressive DC heat on a summer day.  It was always a little cramped, but it was a box store trying to be downtown, so that was allowed.  It wasn’t something I’d ever go downtown to do, but it’s something I did so often downtown.

I’ve read any number of articles about why Borders failed.  They insisted on their own inventory system that required relabeling every book with those Borders bar code stickers.  They didn’t see the power of the internet when it launched, and when they did finally understand they let Amazon be their online presence, which is much like going out into the ocean with a shark lifeguard.  It never felt like they understood that Amazon was their competition, not Crown, not Barnes and Nobles, not Books-a-Million.  This was most evident in their DVD section, which used to be rather decent, and it was okay it was a little overpriced because there were things I could only find at Borders.  But then I started being able to find them at Amazon.  For cheaper.  It’s the same thing that really took down Tower Records.

There’s any number of reasons Borders failed.  And I hope that they don’t spread to Barnes and Nobles.  I love the convenience of online book buying, but I also love being able to go into a store still and being surrounded by books.  And these are what has survived.  A lot of smaller book stores were gobbled up or driven out by these two behemoths, and if they fail there’s going to be a massive hole in the retail market that is going to be damned hard to fill.  The only company that probably has the resources to start a national chain of booksellers right now would be Amazon itself, but they would really have no reason to do so.

So there it is.  That’s my eulogy to a store and a company that I loved.  If you’re looking for me, you’ll probably find me in the stacks, picking over the bones of the giant trying to find a few pieces of meat, one last time shopping at a store that isn’t itself anymore.  In the end there’ll probably be a book written about the rise and fall of the company, because it does embody the growth of the box store and the failure of brick and mortar stores to adapt to the new online economy.

And I’m sure it’ll be available from Amazon and on the Kindle.

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