Life Without Borders’

This past Wednesday, Borders’ filed for bankruptcy.  This wasn’t a surprise.  Even before the company announced last month that they were trying to re-work payment arrangements with publishers and creditors—a move that, given their well-known struggles over the past few years—all but guaranteed bankruptcy, it was pretty obvious to most Borders’ customers—at least those of us who received their coupons via email—that things weren’t looking good.  A weekly delivery of 30% off, 40% off, 50% off, Buy One Book Get Another at Half Price coupons made the company appear like an antsy auctioneer attempting to dump unwanted merchandise.

So most people saw this bankruptcy coming.  There have been a steady stream of reports in the media about “the significance” of Borders’ going bankrupt, people talking about the “challenging world of the book retail industry” and the effect this could have on publishing.  It was never very obvious what Borders’ was attempting to do to avoid this rapid decent towards bankruptcy—other than flinging those desperate coupons at customers.

I suppose the news of Borders’ demise should upset me.  I’m a writer, trying to finish a novel, and any bad news about the “book retail” industry—particularly the demise of one of the former giants of book retail—could upset me. But I also have a more personal connection to Borders’: I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the headquarters of the company, and I still remember going, as a boy, to the original store on State Street ,at the intersection of Liberty, and looking through Calvin and Hobbes and other comic books.  That was probably twenty years ago, before Borders’—born in that liberal, book-loving university town—expanded to the point that it became ubiquitous in even rural shopping strips.

But I’m not upset that Borders’ went bankrupt.  I’m not happy; I don’t take pleasure in the unhappiness of others.  I think Borders’ failure is appropriate, and I truly believe that its current flagging state will—in the long run—benefit writers.  Not book retailers—they’ve got their own problems.  But this is good for writers. Here’s why:

Those desperate, massive, weekly percentage-off coupons have been devaluing the value of books.  They give the impression that the product they’re discounting is over-priced, and, perhaps, not important.  Think about it this way: If you saw your local butcher or meat counter selling their beef for 30% off week after week for years on end, do you think you’d keep buying that beef?

The floor plan of Borders’—with those “featured books” tables front-and center and all the “other” books shoved to the far reaches of the bookshelves—establishes the idea in the customer that some books are more important than others.  Unfortunately—and not always—those books on the featured tables are no better-written or more engaging than the ones on the shelves.  Many a fine author will be featured on those tables—say, oh, David Foster Wallace or Michael Cunningham or Jumpdha Lahari.  But think about what this display probably means for the publishers of those books.  Which books are gonna make the most money?  The ones at the front of the store, on those “featured tables.”  So for years publishers have been dumping the majority of their money into already best-selling authors who they hope will continue sell well, and then use the profits to support the publication of all their B List authors.  Well, most of the authors I know and read are “B” List, and they write damn fine work, and the covers of their books have as much of a right to be staring you in the face as anything by Stephanie Meyer.

The shelves.  Ok, most people keep books on shelves. And what do you do when you have too many books? Buy more shelves, or stack books on the floor.  But a Borders’ store has limited shelf space.  And books don’t get to linger on those shelves for years on end.  If an author’s book comes out and doesn’t sell, Borders’ is gonna get rid of it to make space for some other book that is selling or might sell.  And eventually, so, too, will the publisher get rid of the author.  Which is bad business for an author—and bad business for the publisher.  Books don’t sell for a number of reasons, most of them related to marketing and promotion, not necessarily the quality of the writing. Sure, the author could do more to promote the book, but so could the publisher. Dumping an author’s book—and maybe an author—because a book isn’t selling is sort of like a sports team getting rid of a stellar athlete if the team isn’t winning.   It’s a team game; team don’t win ‘cause the team isn’t good.  If the Chicago Bulls had gotten rid of Michael Jordan in the early years of his career, Jordan still would have gone on to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time.  And the Chicago Bulls might never have won any of those six championships.

And, finally, a general lack of enthusiasm or care about selling the product in their stores.  I live in Chicago now, and every time I’ve gone in recent years to the Borders’s nearest my home—at North and Halsted—I’ve felt like I’m walking into a teenager’s bedroom.  A feeling of neglect and disregard permeates the place.  Those “featured books” tables are usually in the way of what I’m looking for—often classic Russian Literature, or classic crime novels or some of the fine American literature of ‘70’s and ‘80’s, maybe some Pete Dexter or Harry Crews or Clyde Edgerton(which is never in stock).  The other categories—fiction and poetry and cooking and history—feel rather strewn around the store, sort of like dirty clothes.  Nobody asks what I’m looking for.  Nobody even seems to care that I’m there.  And many times, they haven’t had in stock books I’d consider classics.  I have two kids, both of whom love books, but the shelves of the Children’s sections are filled with a dozen or so copies of big-sellers like “The Cat in The Hat” or “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”  But try to find a book by Maurice Sendak other than “Where the Wild Things Are” or a Munro Leaf book other than “The Story of Ferdinand” and you find bunko.

So why is Borders’ demise good for writers?  Because for these reasons—and probably more—Borders’ has slowly been contributing to the cheapening of literature.  Unfortunately, publishing companies went along with the game.  And more unfortunately, so have writers.

But there is hope. Because writing, The Word, is more powerful than Borders’—it’s more powerful than publishers and books and even writers.  Those things are all just elements trying to channel the power of the word to an audience.  And since The Word will live on, so will writers.  Without—or maybe even with—Borders’.