Borders Bookstores filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy today. As a part of that, 200 out of 650 or so stores nationwide are being shut down in the next few weeks. I doubt Amazon and Barnes/Noble were crying too many tears over this. At least not on a corporate level. For booksellers in general, authors, and readers, it’s a sad day. A lot of booklovers are out of a job soon. For towns where Borders was the main bookstore, readers are relegated to ordering books or browsing the poor selections in supermarkets. I’m happy that my local store survived the cut. This time. Who’s to say what will happen down the road?
Honestly, I can’t see a bright future for Borders. They’re behind the times relative to Amazon and B/N with the growth in digital books. Our reading culture is going to continue its gradual shift toward digital reading. As the devices get better and cheaper, more of the younger generations are going to grow up reading off a screen. On the one hand, I suspect we will see a gradual growth in overall readership in the population. This is a good thing. On the negative side, bookstores are great places, and the loss of this kind of space bums me out. Digital, despite its ability to bring more choice and convenience to reading, and even providing outlets to discuss books, shifts the book experience toward the impersonal. There is something to be said for being able to physical handle books and discuss with a live person. On a certain level, it’s impossible for the digital world to mimic the bookstore experience. In the long run though, are people going to care? That is one of the main problems facing bookstores now.
How are bookstores going to remain relevant as a physical space? It will no longer be enough to just be a place to shop for books and buy a coffee. In my opinion, they are going to have to change into something more than just a bookseller. They will have to become a bookbuying experience that provides something worth the time and effort. Personally, I like the convenience of one button buying. When I know what I want, why bother with a bookstore? They are going to have to find a way to make physical shopping relevant again. I don’t have the answers to this dilema. A bookstore’s biggest advantage is with shoppers who don’t know exactly what they want. Of course, if you don’t have the staff who knows what they’re about when it comes to books, this advantage is gone. Cheap, uninformed labor only aids the bottom line. If I got to a bookstore asking for a particular kind of story and I get met with a blank stare, this doesn’t inspire me to utilize the service. This of course, is only one issue that bookstores need to address.
Regardless, we haven’t seen the last of the problems for the physical bookstore. It’s probably only going to get worse. Bookstores and libraries too, are beneficial social/cultural spaces in our communities. I hope we find a way to maintain them and keep them relevant in the years to come as these changes take effect.