Closing the Book

PUBLISHED: July 22, 2011

I used to have an aversion to big-box stores, especially those that destroy well-run, friendly neighborhood businesses, which is a fundamental part of the big-box strategy.

Over time my stance softened. My family and I do more of our shopping in places like Target, Best Buy, Costco and Home Depot, because of the large selection and reasonable prices. Yes, the personal touch is missing - but that's a tradeoff, because sometimes you want to spend an hour examining dozens of socket wrenches without a salesperson hovering.

When Borders opened its cavernous store in our community some 14 years ago, I was even more conflicted. I hated what would predictably happen to our local bookshops and, sure enough, most of them died slow and financially painful deaths. On the other hand, it was a wonderful new experience to plop down in a bookstore and actually read a chapter or two without feeling guilty.

Our Borders was as box-like as a big-box could be. It wasn't even in a mall; it was at the edge of town in a retail development that contained a half-dozen mega-stores and a few fast-food shops. It was part of the sprawl that is wrecking Downtown, America.

But there were so many books! Plus, newspapers and magazines, DVDs and CDs - and a coffee shop where local authors gave lectures and music groups performed. It seemed to be the type of place that would help preserve books and periodicals, not contribute to their demise.

Borders was always a poorly managed business. It was plagued by supply problems, causing key titles to be missing for many days. It was slow to adapt to new technology - both online and with e-books. It had an awful "rewards" program that provided little value to loyal customers.

Yet, the more than 600 Borders stores were havens. I recall rushing into the Providence, R.I., store when I needed a book about birds, with lots of color pictures, for the seven-year-old son of a friend I was visiting. They had a dozen from which to choose, and free gift-wrapping.

I remember spending part of an afternoon at the branch in Scottsdale, Ariz., when the temperature outside was over 100. I perused dozens of out-of-town newspapers, enjoyed the air conditioning, and purchased a book for my wife about identifying wild mushrooms.

In San Francisco, I used to visit the Borders store across the street from AT&T Park while waiting for a Giants game. I'd go to the big branch just off Union Square and sit at a wooden table on the second floor reading parts of several books that seemed interesting, but weren't quite worth owning.

Now, it's all disappearing. And no matter what the digital future holds in delivering books via electronic devices, losing Borders can't be a good thing. Beyond the 10,700 remaining staffers who are about to join the growing ranks of unemployed; beyond the wreckage of local bookshops that couldn't hang on during Borders' meteoric rise, and beyond the blight of shuttered Borders' venues across the map, the fabric of society is being ripped a bit more.

As I said, Borders was not a well-run company, so perhaps the following bit of prose was crafted by a highly paid publicist rather than a lover of literature. Regardless, here's what it says on the about-to-be-closed Borders website:

"We are passionate about the importance of literacy and knowledge to our culture; dedicated to the extraordinary power of books - those who write them, read them, collect them, look after them, treasure them."

Last fall, as it came clear that Borders was struggling, I wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the crumbling of some big-box operations might actually create an opportunity for small, locally operated bookstores. I theorized that with the bulk of business shifting to online merchants and electronic reading devices, there would still be a niche for stores where you could hold a book in your hands while sipping coffee, listening to music, and savoring the experience in a way that Amazon and Kindle simply can't provide.

I hope I was right. As badly as I felt when Borders first came to town, today I feel even worse that it's leaving.

(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.

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