Greetings. Like most people I know who spent time in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1970’s, I have a very close connection with Borders—the company that once reinvented the world of bookstores. Started as a used book shop in 1971 by a pair of brothers, the original store would quickly become one of the most successful and cherished independent bookstores in America operating out of a convenient two-story building on State Street. Filled with the latest titles, the coolest posters, abundant sale tables, and lots of quite corners and comfortable chairs to get lost in, it was one of my very favorite hang outs during my years as a graduate student. This was a place that made the joy of books and reading come alive.
Several years later this original store would move to a larger vacated department store a block away and, from my perspective at least, begin to lose the very heart and soul that had made Borders such a special place. But this new formula would become the start of the current company and its chain of several hundred big-box stores filled with books and a lot of other stuff. And even though they lacked the special feel I'd come to love, these new stores would become an important part of the cultural landscape of the cities, towns, and strip malls where they sprouted up.
Just as a powerful transformation was taking place…
So the announcement that Borders was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection came as no real surprise to me. I’d seen the signs, read the tea leaves, noticed the obvious change in the world of book buying—both as an author and as a regular customer. The rapid growth of on-line book selling–which the company failed to embrace, the emergence of electronic books–which Borders never made a serious investment in, and the presence of new competitors like Walmart offering the most popular books at even steeper discounts had all conspired to change the game that this remarkable business had invented. And it now lacked a brilliant response or sufficient resources to reinvent itself again. And it's unclear whether Chapter 11, in the absence of a more compelling strategy, will enable the company to survive. In fact, it's unclear whether a better positioned Barnes & Noble has a long-term future in the bricks and mortar book business.
It’s always possible that Borders will find its way. In some new and smaller form with a clearer and more meaningful value proposition. Because there’s still room for real bookstores that capture our hearts and imaginations in ways that no on-line retailer ever will. The power of the written word and the tangibility of a real book are just too important. But bookstores of the future will likely require a new business model.
We win in business and in life when we pay greater attention to the world around us and figure out how to remain relevant in a time of great change. And when we embrace the full potential of written and unwritten words.