Borders Is Closing. Who’s to Blame: Technology or Poor Business Decisions and Planning?

Borders announced last month that it was closing its nearly 400 stores; the reasons stated were e-reader technology and the poor economy. I contend, however, that Borders lost sight of its core business, which is the magic that comes only through turning pages. I love books and have many bookcases filled with them at home, but I also loved to cruise the aisles of Borders just to see new and exciting topics that I hadn’t considered before. In hindsight, it seems that Borders had a core customer base––avid readers––that it let slip through its fingers. A customer’s visit to Borders should have been treated as an event by the company, which should have focused on cultivating more avid readers. Maybe having craftsmen showing how books are made or gold foil artists actually producing book jacket covers would have been sexier than a book signing for Joan Collins’s new autobiography. Not that I have anything against Joan, mind you, but having a book signing is not my idea of an event. Borders let a generation or two drift toward e-books, and I am not so sure the solution is better than the touch and feel of a book. On a regular basis I see people with library books on the train––these to me are avid fans who could easily use an e-reader but still love the joy of turning pages. There is a lot of satisfaction in sitting down with a traditional book and a sense of accomplishment in closing the book after the last page. I submit that the age of the book is far from over.

Now consider the program Imagination Library started by Dolly Parton in Tennessee, which is bringing the joy of reading to young children and their parents. Dolly wanted to foster a love of reading among preschool-aged children and their families, regardless of the family’s income. She wanted children to be excited about books and the magic that books can create. This free program begins with The Little Engine That Could. Newborns through five-year-olds are eligible, and a child can literally bring the first book home with him or her from the hospital. Every month after that, a new, carefully selected, age-appropriate book will be mailed until the child turns 5 (the last title is Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!).

Imagination Library has jump-started a long-loved family tradition of reading together at bedtime or anytime of the day. If enrolled as an infant, a child will have collected 60 books by age five. The books are written in English, but native-language, bilingual, and Braille books are available. The program was started in 1996 in partnership with Penguin Publishing, and the response since then has been overwhelming. In 2010 Imagination Library mailed its 30,000,000th book. It is now in 1,300 communities in 3 countries and sends books to 560,000 children each month. The Little Engine That Could was given to 249,145 children in 2010, and just under 126,000 graduated from the program in 2010. As the website proudly states, “What’s the sum of all these numbers? Smiles on faces, books held close, and our four favorite words––‘Read it to me!’”

2010 was also big for New York City; the Department of Education has recently partnered with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and other organizations and currently has over 22,000 children enrolled. The goal is to promote the development of emergent literacy and language skills that are important for every child’s success in school. The by-product is bringing families together with the joy and magic of books, not e-readers.

Let’s finally consider the demise of Borders’ 400-plus stores and the $1.275 billion in assets it filed in its 2011 Chapter 11 filing. How much of those assets are books? And the bigger question is why in the 15 years since Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library began hasn’t Borders found a way to bring back its core base, avid readers of books? I contend that technology is NOT the reason, because there is a love of books that has not gone away.

A few thoughts on the subject of books:

“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” — Mark Twain

“Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, and hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. What I wonder is why everybody doesn’t carry a book around for those inevitable dead spots in life.” — Stephen King

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island … and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.” — Walt Disney

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx

Information on Borders
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library
NYC Department of Education’s Imagination Library Registration Form“

Author: Tom Caska

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3 responses to “Borders Is Closing. Who’s to Blame: Technology or Poor Business Decisions and Planning?

  1. I totally agree with your diagnosis of the demise of Borders…..except perhaps the “event” thing….and they did themselves in by not paying attention to the other big guys…match prices because with the consumer $$ is the bottom line.

    The info on Dolly Parton’s program was new to me, thanks.

    • Thank you for the comment. I agree with them letting the competition under cut them in this economy, it was a kiss of death. Check out the Imagination Library, it’s a real good thing they have going on.

      ~Tom

  2. Great article, and I agree that paper books are far from over. Though it’s hard to see how large brick-and-mortar chains can compete with online dealers (like Amazon) that NEVER charge full retail, offer free shipping at $25+, and in many states don’t even collect sales tax. To their credit, Borders had a very good, free email coupon program. I had pretty much stopped buying books locally, but armed with their 33%–50% writ, I was picking up hardbacks every couple of weeks. Sorry to see them go.

    I think maybe the future here is in the smaller, niche stores. In my ‘hood, Tower Records and Virgin Megastore went out years ago, but tiny Other Music, with ultra-knowledgeable staff, lives to rock another day. The huge Barnes and Noble on Astor Place is a high end gym now, but St. Marks Books, St. Marks Comics, and Shakespeare Books are all hanging in there (at least for now).

    Great idea about having in-store print craftsman demos, BTW. As “dead tree” books become more of a specialty item, this kind of thing could really help!

    -John

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