This week, the Borders chain of bookshops announced they would close their existing 399 locations. The liquidation will run through September. The Borders stores I visited over the years always felt like the hip, younger brother to the more staid and button-down Barnes and Noble locations. And by “hip” I mean the type of person your parents told you not to associate with, and hence the closure.
The standard line is that, although traditional bookstores are failing left and right, book sales are just fine. Customers are simply choosing to purchase their reading choices from places that offer better pricing (Amazon.com), more convenience (Amazon.com), or content in electronic formats (Amazon.com). Those are all valid points, but it isn’t the only reason that stores like Borders go under.
Decades ago, bookstores used to be a place where you bought books. It wasn’t that different from the clothing shop, the fishmonger, or the Rolex truck; when you needed a book, you went to the bookstore. When mega-bookstores came on the scene, book buying became more than just an item on a shopping list; it became a lifestyle choice. Instead of going to the movies, your family could enter the climate-controlled world of reading, complete with comfy chairs, coffee made-to-order, and no questions asked. Much of it had to do with the economics of the day: a rising middle class with more disposable income and a desire to look the part that their intellectual upwardly mobile lifestyle demanded.
But people are easily bored by upwardly mobile intelligence. It turns out that there are other things to do with money, including more recent concerns such as buying food and paying the mortgage. And while book reading is still happening everywhere, book lounging at places like Borders is one the decline. Part of it is the fickle consumer, but the bookstores are also to blame. If they add only limited value beyond being a storage shed for books, customers will opt for any shed.
Barnes and Noble seems to be doing much better, but I worry about it as well. It is bringing value to its stores with its new emphasis on the Nook devices. And it tends to play up the community aspects of its stores by offering extra-large coffee shops and dozens of benches near the magazine racks. But brick and mortar bookstores are still a lot more expensive than online sellers. For many years, I worked for a “VAR,” a “value-added reseller.” We sold computers, and while you could buy computers from Best Buy, our company offered services that enhanced the computer-buying experience. We were a lot more expensive than Best Buy, but we provided products and services that were worth the added cost. If Barnes and Noble plans to be around twenty years from now, they will have to ensure a value-added experience.
[Image Credits: flickr.com/Mark Hillary]