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20 Feb 2011
You might have heard the sad news about Borders filing for bankruptcy. I have never really liked chain bookstores and prefer independent booksellers, but to hear about their demise makes me worried about the industry in general. With the rising popularity of e-readers (which I kind of abhor), a lot of people are "going digital" and foregoing the value of real books. And now we have this kind of news. What's next for us book-loving people?

Nevertheless Sarah Weinman has a very interesting perspective about this whole thing:
"I can’t help but think - and I’m sure I’m stealing someone else’s analogy, so apologies in advance - that we’ll look back and realize massive superstore chain bookstores were the subprime loans and credit default swaps of the publishing industry. Was it really possible that a store with comfy couches, magazines, coffee, toys and games would ever be the right venue for the actual buying of books? That a company beholden to shareholders and the stock market could mesh with the art of recommending the right title to the right customer?

It’s no accident the superstore began in the early 90s, when Borders sold to KMart in 1992 and B&N finally went public in 1994, when we were climbing out of an economic dip and plunging into the go-go years of boom time. We could shrug off Crown Bookstore going under - first in 1998, for real in 2001 - because hey, that was family mismanagement, the culmination of bitter infighting and lax attention on the bottom line. We could ignore Borders’ bonehead move of outsourcing its online arm to Amazon because the digital world didn’t matter like we thought it did and we thought it never would. And later, we could attribute brick-and-mortar decline to so many of the usual suspect factors: the tanking economy, e-books, attention spans leaving books and moving to other kinds of media, and so forth.

But maybe what really happened was as simple as this: chain bookstores were never supposed to last as long as they did, and have reached their natural end point after twenty years. Publishing in general has enough struggle with scale, either being too small and prone to great risk and failure, or too big and beholden to larger entities who want greater and greater annual profits. Whatever possessed us to think bookstores could operate this way? Why is the art of bookselling supposed to be conflagrated with abundance, with excess and with millions of square feet?"


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