September 18 marked the last chapter in the story of Borders. The chain started out in 1971 as a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and expanded to more than 1,000 stores from coast to coast. But like all stories, Borders would come to an end.
As the digital age of media, e-readers, and online stores rushed to the forefront of the book-selling business, Borders struggled to keep up with its competitors. The company, founded by siblings Tom and Louis Borders, was known for its cozy, relaxing, and community-oriented atmosphere. As Wired magazine put it, “Borders … pioneered the idea that a bookstore could be more like a combination of a library and your living room.”
In 2005, Borders added Seattle’s Best Coffee cafes — another company founded by brothers — to its U.S. locations, making it even more of a community destination. “A family could spend part of a rainy weekend afternoon in Borders, and each of its members could find something to enjoy,” recalls Ron Hart, a Yahoo! contributor who lives in New York. “Sometimes it seemed half the neighborhood was there reading books and sharing coffee.”
Neighborhood community center
For people in storm-prone areas, the local Borders became the go-to place to access the Internet and connect with family and neighbors after a power outage. “Neighbors convened in the Borders cafe with their laptops, connecting to the outside world,” writes Yahoo! Contributor Carol Bengle Gilbert of Silver Spring, Maryland. “It was as much community center as electrical lifeline; we could count on running into people we knew throughout the day.”
But the environment its customers valued so much proved to be unprofitable in an increasingly technological industry, where customers could buy a digital version of the same book they were reading at Borders at a discounted price. Or people could buy the book online and skip going to the store altogether.
After decades of strong growth, Borders faltered. It partnered with Amazon in 2001 to run its online business but didn’t create its own e-commerce site until 2008. And it spent the past few years trying to catch up to its competitors’ e-readers: Borders launched the Kobo in 2010, two years after Amazon and Barnes & Noble released the Kindle and the Nook.
In February 2011, after years of declining profits and lagging innovation, Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and opened itself up to bidders. None came. Five months later, the chain announced that it would be closing the 399 remaining stores and putting 11,000 employees out of work. By the end of September, Borders bookstores ceased to exist.
The future of bookstores
On a larger scale, Borders’ shutdown marked a fading era of family trips to the neighborhood bookstore, where the kids could sprawl in the children’s section, while the adults drank coffee, read magazines, and chatted with the neighbors. Megachains had edged out independent bookstores (more than 1,000 closed in the past decade), and the digital revolution in turn eroded their presence.
Some see a silver lining to Borders’ demise, that it gives independent bookstores a chance to return to fill the void. Borders had 1,249 stores at its peak in 2003. A few have moved into the former Borders locations, while others are benefiting from Borders patrons who prefer tangible books.
But some believe that even if independent bookstores are successful in filling Borders’ shoes, it won’t be the same. “Gone are the days of camping out on a cushy leather armchair to check out the new books,” said Yahoo! Contributor Judy Baker, who attended the opening of the Borders in Riverdale, New Jersey, and who would drive an hour to spend time there at least once a week. “Gone is the luxury of reading the latest magazines while enjoying a Seattle’s Best latte in the cafe.”
The new generation of independent bookstores are hybrids of the old and new eras. They stock the physical books along with the option to buy the e-versions online. Even that model must change fast: The number of American e-reader owners doubled from 6% to 12% in the first six months of this year. According to Information Today, e-books will make up 16% of all books worldwide by 2014. By 2017, there will be about 54 million e-readers in the world. One publishing consultant predicts that over the next decade, shelf space devoted to print books in physical stores will decline 90% as e-readers proliferate.
With technological improvements, the definition and use of bookstores continue to evolve. As Carol Fitzgerald, founder of BookReporter.com, a network of websites for book discussions, says, “Maybe we’ll come to think of them as reading stores, or readers’ stores, or publishing stores, or idea stores, more than simply bookstores.”
—Torrey AndersonSchoepe is a news and social media editor for Yahoo! News. She also follows business, economic, and financial news and has written a variety of stories for Yahoo! News, including an in-depth profile on the last man out of the South Tower of the World Trade Center for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Follow her on Twitter @torrey_ynews and subscribe to her on Facebook.