Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Borders plight redux

The other day I gave ten reasons why Borders should go under, all of which remain valid. Even so, there is always another side to a story. Here are some reasons why Borders’ demise is bad news:

★ Loss of jobs. It is shocking and depressing to contemplate the human cost of having so many people thrown out of work, especially those hourly employees who kept faith and took pride in their individual stores even while management was selling them out. They deserve sympathy and aid, especially given the high number of unemployed already out on the street. Then there are those poor souls who have been selling and servicing the account for publishers. What will become of them?

★ Loss of common space for readers to gather. Borders' superstores had become community social centers, where people from all walks of life, united by their love for books, could sit together, drink coffee, read, write, converse, and enjoy each other’s company. Despite the rhapsodizing of the techno-savants over the creation of an “online commons,” it is nothing compared to the real thing -- a shared physical space and a shared physical experience. Shuttering these spaces will impoverish the communities who depended on them.

★ Lost sales at healthy retailers due to the dumping of inventory in a liquidation sale.

★ Loss of diversity in the retailing eco-system. As poorly managed as Borders was, it did provide an alternative for those who didn’t like Barnes & Noble’s cookie-cutter merchandising or live near an independent bookstore. Borders did bring physical books into the otherwise barren wasteland of American big box retailing.

★ Loss of tax revenues for local jurisdictions.

★ More power accruing to Amazon. Amazon already owns the largest slice of the retail book business pie by far, a condition it exploits to extract favorable terms from publishers and bully states into backing down on sales tax collection initiatives. Amazon is a big, efficient virtual selling platform but a lousy marketer (except for their own products, i.e. the Kindle) and it couldn’t care less about the content it hawks, only the profits it generates. It adds nothing to the browsing experience and relies on algorithms to make customer suggestions. It has the personality of an ATM. Who wants Amazon to control half of the trade book market?

★ An increase in vacant storefronts, those filthy eyesores strung along America’s highways.

★ An increase in the odds that Books-A-Million and Hastings will survive and limp along doing what they’ve always done. That these two backward-looking and unappealing retail chains are still in business is a sure sign that inertia is the most powerful force acting on the marketplace.

★ Loss of display space for the fine handiwork of all the talented cover artists and designers who make books look good. Jacket art is still one of the most compelling factors in getting consumers to pick up a book. A thumbnail online doesn’t come close to the real thing.

★ A substantial ratcheting up of the fear about the future of books and a new wave of mournful, or celebratory, articles, blog posts, and ‘think pieces’ stating that physical books and bookstores are dead. Ugh.

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