On the Death of Borders

Scott Leslie asked me a great question a year ago that I never forgot. In the middle of a discussion about the decline of newspapers and it’s relation to the impending implosion of higher ed he asked me, since I was defending institutional relevance, to name one case where an entrenched industry made changes and avoided the hammer of fate. 

I think I may have replied that industries don’t dodge the bullet (players within industries do), but even then I was pretty hard pressed to come up with a compelling example of a true evolution in the face of something like the Internet.

I think we might have one now. Borders is closing all around the country. It’s bankrupt and it is done. 

While that might seem pretty counter to my claim, the point is that it signals to some extent the End of Days for the 80s/90s style bookstore chain is here. And yet Barnes and Noble is still around, to some extent, because of their embrace of the technologies Borders saw more or less as their enemy. 

Commenting on Borders’ farewell note, Ian Crouch writes:

Borders, of course, isn’t going to say that the book trade is fine and sound and that it simply blew it. Yet setting the “eReader revolution” alongside a “turbulent economy,” and branding it an “external force,” reveals a decade-long blind spot that goes some distance in explaining how Borders got to this point. It’s been said widely, but can stand repeating: e-readers and digital content are not part of some tidal force bent on destroying all that is fine and good about the written word. It is just another way for customers to buy books, for companies to sell them, and for people to read them. The recession has been tough on all booksellers (Barnes & Noble’s tight spot last year brought on many of the same reflections about the state of book retail) but the growth of digital reading has not been equally hard on everyone. Short of changing its name to Kindle, Amazon has done just about everything it can to promote its e-reader; Barnes & Noble has doggedly pushed the Nook. Borders, meanwhile, owned just over ten per cent of the Kobo e-reader, and gave the device prominent placement in its stores, but never managed to make a clear connection in customers’ minds. (B&N has since shored itself up enough that commentators were suggesting it as a likely tennant in many of the soon-to-be abandoned Borders locations.) The Detroit Free Press gets it right this morning by noting that the company lost “a battle with competitors, technology and itself.”

In he long run, I suppose, there will be no bookstores, but as I believe Keynes first said, in the long run we’re all dead. Short to middle run is what matters in terms of shaping the world and (hopefully) making it better. And in the short to middle term there are major, major differences between how institutions go about their business. The ones that, like Borders, understand Just-in-time learning, peer-to-peer networks, and open content as “external forces” are headed for dismal declines. The ones that see these things as just more ways of doing the stuff we have always been about will be OK (or at least more OK).

Maybe Barnes and Noble will be under in five years, maybe Random State College will be under in ten. I don’t think any industry should desire to live forever in its current form. In the meantime, differences matter, and the institutions that adapt get to write the next page of history.

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