Border-line Crazy

The news today that Borders Books will close their doors has particular poignancy to me.


At its peak, Borders was seen as the more brainy and cool of the large book chains, holding onto the college-town culture of its roots. In the 1990s, that image began to fade as the chain expanded wildly and helped snuff out many mom-and-pop independent stores.

The company’s troubles can be traced to a series of strategic missteps, executive turnover and a general failure to keep up with an evolving retail climate. Borders was hurt by pressure from, Barnes & Noble and big-box stores likeWal-Mart that began selling large numbers of best sellers.

As a student at the University of Michigan School of Art in Ann Arbor, I frequented the original Borders on State Street. It really was the quintessential college experience: A quiet, woody-shelved place where there were stools for reaching high shelves or sitting for hours to read, uninterrupted by staff. This was the 80s, so in addition to my quest for knowledge, I was also hoping to run across a New Wave Nerd-Girl in those intimate aisles. Occasionally I did.

I can still remember my dismay when, many years after leaving college, I spied a Borders store in a suburban strip mall north of Detroit. As the J. Giles Band noted, my memories had just been sold. To Kmart, it turned out, which had several years earlier also purchased the venerable Waldenbooks brand.

True to the Kmart way, they at first tried to turn Borders into a discount book store, a far cry from the cozy den of intellectuality I experienced. That was their first mistake. They also moved it toward blockbusters and popular culture, error number two. Senior management became alienated by the Kmart philosophy and left, sealing the fate for what could have been a brilliant and beloved international brand.

When Borders was quickly spun off by Kmart to stanch the red ink spilling onto their balance sheets from the bookstore, only then was there an attempt to return to the true brand essence of Borders with store redesigns and partnerships with Starbucks and Seattle's Best.

However, by that time the writing was on the wall, and as a result of the brand's lack of focus, it lost the competitive advantage to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, both of which had moved (or originated, in Amazon's case) aggressively to capture the online and eBook markets.

It's never the end of the world when a brand falls, but when you have a particularly strong emotional attachment to it, as I did to Borders, it's not unlike the day your cat dies.


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