The fall of a cultural icon

Monday night I went to a Borders for the last time. Well, the store signage said “Borders,” but it wasn’t like I remembered it at all. The cafe was closed, the friendly Borders staff was gone, and there were signs indicating the mark-downs available for any given shelf. In fact, there were no employees of Borders anywhere to be found, it seems that they’d all been replaced by the liquidation company. I don’t hesitate to say that the the experience was depressing – Borders has always been my preferred bookstore, and their cafe’s were always more cozy than Barnes and Noble.

A lot of pixels have been used to blame Borders’ demise on the rise of eBooks. I suppose there is some truth to that, the timing of the decision to close comes very shortly after the lackluster reviews of the Kobo Touch eReader came to light. It seems like that device was their last throw of the dice, and it failed. In reality, however, Borders’ demise strings back over a decade of completely mis-reading the writing on the wall when it came to cultural change. Borders just never “got” the Internet Age, and so they are relegated to a cultural footnote.

Borders first mis-judged people’s willingness to buy books online and have them shipped to their homes. After all, the purchase of a book has always been a strangely personal endeavor. Borders reasoned that people would much rather prefer to purchase books in a store, where they can page through them in person, than to get an unknown quantity of the net. This attitude led Borders to license out their on-line shopping to Amazon. They got a cut of the sales referred to from Borders, and didn’t have to worry about the hassle of managing a distribution network for on-line sales. At the time, they were correct. More people did prefer to buy their books in the store than pay Amazon to ship a book they’d never seen to their homes. The speed at which the culture shifted to feeling comfortable with shopping on-line, however, shocked everyone – especially companies like Borders. Amazon rather quickly started making a profit, offered an incredible buying experience, added reviews and book previews, and gained a reputation for having some of the best customer service anywhere. When the time came to renew the licensing agreement with Amazon for on-line sales, Amazon found they no longer needed Borders’ reputation to sell books. Borders eventually got into the game, but far too late – people didn’t associate “Borders” with “on-line shopping,” and their store gained little traction. Borders’ biggest brick and mortar competition, however, took an entirely different approach. Barnes and Noble merged the experience between their brick and mortar and internet stores. This approach, combined with many of the same features Amazon offered, allowed Barnes and Noble to thrive in the new reality – something Borders never managed to do.

When eBooks became a viable tool Borders repeated many of their same mistakes. Amazon and Barnes and Noble created their own devices and offered significant value to using them. Amazon’s Kindle had “whisper sync” and free 3g access to their store. Barnes and Noble’s Nook offered the ability to browse through books (or even read them) in their entirety when used inside their Brick and Mortar stores. Borders, meanwhile, failed to understand the need to control an eco-system in order to provide a value-added experience for their brand. They made their books available on a plethora of different readers (notably Sony), and lost the ability link their brand with eBooks. By the time they established Kobo as their “go to” eReader for the Borders brand (Borders owned a minority share in Kobo Books) they had, again, become an also ran. It was simply too late to save them.

The fall of Borders as a cultural icon should serve as a warning to other organization who are dealing the the current reality with their heads in the sand. The shifts were are seeing to online, mobile, and social content are not minor fads. They are significant cultural shifts which are altering the very fabric of human interaction and must be dealt with. Nor, as Barnes and Noble has shown, does this online reality mean we need to instantly abandon “traditional” methods. Barnes and Noble has fused their on-line and brick and mortal realities into a hybrid other brands are envious of – and rightfully so.

Will other organizations on the bubble pay attention to the fall of Borders and change their tunes? In particular, will churches and denominations pay attention to how rapidly Borders disappeared and develop a desire to engage our changing culture with a missionary zeal? I hope so but, if the last 40 years is an example of what we have to look forward to, most will never take the plunge.


  1. Mel Johnson says:

    Part of the problem with the the switch between store bought books and internet bought books was the lack of realization that the people who want to buy books in person are more often than not the people who want specialized category books. (This is why B&N is also not doing as well store-side.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve not found anything interesting or found the book I was actually looking for in Borders due to a lack of stock in specialty sections (Scifi, mystery, science non fiction, poetry, etc.). You can’t assume any more that the top selling books of the week, popular magazines, and the classics are going to hold you over in the wake of the cheaper route of buying them on the internet. People who want Oprah’s next endorsement generally don’t need the experience of browsing.

  2. Cathi says:

    Interesting thoughts. I guess I never really thought about it, but you are right, I have bought many books on line from Amazon and B&N, but never from Borders. Borders ws the store I went to when I didn’t really know what I wanted, like children’s birthday presents or a coffee table book.

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