Friday, March 25, 2011

Why Borders Doesn't Matter

Borders Books at 1807 Fordham Boulevard in Cha...Image via WikipediaWhen Borders, the book superchain, announced in February that it would euthanize nearly a third of its stores and lay off thousands of workers as part of a Hail Mary bankruptcy plan, op-ed pages and blogs erupted with predictable jeremiads portending the death of print books.  The Kindle, web publishing, and our media-saturated environment had finally delivered the killing stroke that prophets of doom said movies, television, and radio would provide in previous generations.  As a writer and English teacher, I felt justly concerned.

Until a front page article appeared in the USA Today on February 10th, 2011.  According to Bob Minzesheimer, the future still looks bright for independent booksellers who provide good service, participate in the community, and recognize that literacy isn’t just a process, it’s a lifestyle experience.  (Click here for the original article.)

Looking back on the panic-stricken response to Borders’ announcement, I notice it lacks one important consideration.  Books are not a product.  Especially in our digital society, where most information waits one Google click away, people who choose books—who seek out the physical, sensory experience of reading—choose a culture, not a commodity.

Over a decade ago, Naomi Klein wrote, in No Logo, that many workers at chains like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and their subsidiary mall stores, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, have grown frustrated and left bookselling because their employers would rather invest in constant growth than living wages or meaningful work.  I can attest the truth of this claim.  While my peers flipped burgers or sacked groceries, my first high school job involved stocking shelves and ringing sales at the B. Dalton four blocks from my house.

It would sound like a whine for me to claim that workers wanted to make a career at the chain, but usually felt we couldn’t do so.  Wage slaves who had jockeyed the counter since our store opened complained that they saw little hope of advancing beyond substandard pay, and most maintained second jobs.  But workers have often wailed against their employers.  Such complaints say little new.

I was more surprised, in a Reagan-Bush-era Junior Republican way, when my managers voiced the same complaints.  As the chain opened and closed stores faster than a shell game, my bosses felt helpless to tell home office that, if they didn’t get paid better, they couldn’t hopscotch among work sites.  When a box cutter notched a two-inch slash in my manager’s forearm, she pressed paper towels into the wound and told me that, since she had no health coverage, I needed to work through lunch while she bandaged the bleed.

But the corporations would rather grow.  When B. Dalton’s business model proved depleted, the parent corporation created the Barnes & Noble chain, which spurred international growth.  Appointed like a plush gentlemen’s club, B&N got people through the door, buying books and coffee, but the stores felt little connection to the community.  This left the public ripe for diversion to the neonatal Internet.

Meanwhile, as megacorporations reduced books to the same asset mentality as coal or cola, Chris, who owned the local bookstore in the town where I lived before college, cultivated himself as a community giver.  People came and went all day, bringing coffee and home-baked cookies, and sat around the counter talking.  Sometimes we talked books, sometimes politics and current affairs; but people seldom left without purchasing at least a Newsweek.

Chris never got rich, never formed a chain, but he made a living and gave book buffs someplace we could call our own.  And when I took a wild hair to start reading counterculture heroes of yesteryear, he kept me supplied.  If I ordered a physical book from, I had to wait at least two days.  I told Chris: “I’d like to read Ginsberg’s Howl.”  Chris paused for a moment, then disappeared into a dark corner, returning with the book in hand.

Conglomerated media power over the last two decades has helped no one.  Mass media organizations like Clear Channel, the Tribune Corp., and Bertelsmann have grown bloated and been forced to choose between divesting their interests—which no one but other conglomerates can possibly afford—or go broke.  Media moguls demand profit margins that would make drug kingpins blush.

Books will maintain a treasured place in our digital society.  But that place will be defined by culture, not commerce.  Values, not marketing, bind book readers together.  Our future, if we’re bold enough to claim it, lies in each other, not any chain or corporation.
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