I first encountered Borders in 2001 when my wife and I visited friends who were living in Vancouver. I think I spent about 3-4 hours in the Borders and I probably drooled most of the time. So I was a bit sad to hear this week that all the stores in Australia were closing.
Back then in 2001 I was in total awe.
My God the books!
Living as I did in Cairns at the time, which is not exactly replete with City Lights type bookstores, it was a joy to be in a place where I could think of a book I had been searching for in Australia and voila there it was (so yep, thank you I will buy that copy of The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes). I bought my cup of coffee, read a magazine, then sauntered off around the store, found a collection of William Goldman’s essays from Variety (The Big Picture), sat down in one of the very comfy chairs, and read the whole thing.
I then bought it.
I read another book – and also dozed for a bit (we had arrived the previous day and I was pretty jet-lagged), and then went searching and found a copy of The 42nd Parallel by Jon Dos Passos (bought it), and left thinking this is as close to heaven as I’m going to get.
I’ve always loved bookstores. When I was a kid and we’d go shopping in Adelaide I would happily stay in a bookstore while my parents went off around the rest of the Westfields. At that stage I wasn’t even that big of a fiction reader, but I would happily look at the books on sport, or biographies or history section. Even the crappiest chain store bookstore was bliss for me.
When I went to Japan as an exchange student this love continued as I found some excellent bookstores in Tokyo that had copious amounts of English books – it was actually that year that I really discovered fiction.
And so when I encountered Borders in Vancouver and another in LA and the Barnes and Noble in San Francisco (and also the magnificent City Lights), I was as happy as a book lover could be (apparently there were other sites in Vancouver, LA and San Fran which also made the trip worthwhile).
When Borders opened in Adelaide, I was rather overjoyed as each year when we went home for Christmas I would stock up on books. Though if I was honest, the Borders in Adelaide didn’t change my buying habits much because I would often end up buying the books from the great Imprints bookstore on Hindley Street or the Mary Martin Bookshop on Rundle Street. If I am also honest, the Borders in Adelaide (and the one in Sydney) never really had that great welcoming vibe that did the bookstore in Vancouver. Neither store ever had the come on in and saunter around, grab a book and have a read, buy it if you like it vibe.
They sold coffee though. Gloria Jeans coffee…
When the Canberra store opened however things did feel better – it was just one floor – a wide open expanse. It had a great kids section where someone would often be reading stories on weekends, and my book crazy 5 year old (at the time) daughter was in raptures. It was her absolute favourite store (this was before she discovered Smiggle).
But as time passed I realised that we would go each week and let my daughter do some colouring-in and browsing of the kids books, but my browsing became less and less, because the content in the shop began to shrink. A shelf here and there was taken away. It wasn’t much, but it was noticeable. It went from being a store where I could come across a book I would likely not find anywhere else to one where I would say – you’re kidding they don’t have a copy of Bleak House? No Crime and Punishment?? No Solzhenitsyn at all???
We would buy a book for my daughters (they had a good supply of the “That’s Not My…” books that my youngest loves). But I stopped buying. A couple years back I wrote a blog post called Ten Books Needed in the Perfect Bookstore. It was a bit of a response to Borders lack of content.
Back then I also wrote a blog titled How Much does that Book Cost? in which I despaired at the lack of logic in the price of books, noting that in Borders a copy of Winton’s Cloudstreet which came out in 1991 cost $29.50, but his latest work Breathe (which had just been published) cost $27.50. And of course a couple shelves away I could get Our Mutual Friend for $18.99, but Oliver Twist for $9.99.
I wrote how I could go next door to JB Hi Fi and find logic in the price of DVDs and CDs (you never for example expect to pay more for Achtung Baby which came out in 1991 than U2’s latest album – unless it was a special remastered re-issue, and even then it would likely be the same price as the latest release not more). Similarly you don’t pay more for the DVD of the first Harry Potter movie than you do for the most recent.
Logic. Wonderful thing.
But of course that is not the only reason I stopped buying books there – the actual prices themselves were absurd. With the Australian dollar where it is shopping at The Book Depository with its lovely nil shipping charges is just too good to resist.
Booko has become one of my most visited sites as I compare prices across the world and buy with a couple clicks.
The close of Borders will nonetheless be a sad occasion, but when I went in on Wednesday lunchtime after hearing the news that it was closing the place felt pretty soulless. And what’s more the 20% off didn’t make anything more enticing. I grabbed a couple kids books for my youngest daughter. Went looking to see if a copy of Barnaby Rudge was there (one of the few Dickens I don’t own), it wasn’t. And so I left.
It will be sad because the place will leave a big hole in my daughter's life – she truly loved racing down the back to the kids’ area. But for me, the book addict, it won’t cast too much of a pall. I will still go out each weekend to the great second hand bookstores around Canberra, and also to the fabulous Book Grocer in Kingston which is staffed by people who know books, and which has great books at great prices – $10 for a copy of Roger MacDonald’s 1915, why thank you, yes I will buy that!
There are a number of reasons why Borders failed. Yes the Parallel Import Restrictions play a part – but that doesn’t explain why Borders in the US also went belly-up. It is bizarre to think we could even care that Borders is going. Its demise perhaps makes You’ve Got Mail now officially the most dated movie of the 1990s – remember the book chain owned by Tom Hanks that run Meg Ryan’s little bookstore out of town was modelled on a Border’s type chain – so now, not only is no one meeting anyone through email, neither are massive bookstores chomping away the little guy.
Obviously the internet beat Borders. But I don’t think it did itself any favours. Borders reminds me a bit of Channel 9. Under Packer Nine was always the biggest and the best. Yes it made a profit, but being Number 1, and the biggest and the best seemed more important than being the most profitable. Let Channel 10 play the low revenue, low cost game. Nine was big. And then it was sold to bean counters who slashed and burned as they tried to cut costs and make a profit and well being “Still the One” seemed less important. And so the ratings absolutely tanked across the board.
Borders had to be big, and had to be well stocked, had to offer big service – story readings, coffee, comfy chairs. You had to want to go there because it was BIG. In the last couple years, yeah it’s been big in size, but has felt small in scope.
Floor space is pointless if there feels like more space than books.
But maybe bookstores are dying. I still seem to spend plenty of time in them – the Dymocks in Canberra central is nice and has a “we know books” vibe. So too does the Paperchain bookstore in Manuka (another favourite of mine). If the big bookstores are dead, but the smaller, independent ones (even though I know Dymocks is not) remain, I don’t think that will be too bad a thing.
Have a relaxing weekend (I know I’ll be relaxing in a bookstore).