Farewell, Borders

June 5, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary, Technology by pacejmiller

I had been wanting to write about this ever since news broke a few days ago but for whatever reason held off — maybe hoping that it wasn’t true or that it was a mistaken report.

Oh well.  There’s no use denying it anymore.  The last remaining nine Borders bookstores across Australia will close down over the next six to eight weeks.  The fate of the Angus & Robertson chain, also owned by the in-administration REDgroup, remains uncertain at this point.  The only good news is that its online bookstores will remain open.

I still remember the first time Borders opened up in Australia years and years ago.  I loved them.  They had the broadest range of books and I could spent literally hours and hours browsing from one end of the store the other.  It was perfect for people with short attention spans like me, who just want to read the back cover, maybe read a few pages, and move on if it doesn’t interest me.

When I was living in Cambridge (which had all the big booksellers such as Waterstones, WHSmith, Heffers, etc), I pretty much camped out at Borders.  Nothing to do?  Let’s go to Borders and read all afternoon!  Books, comics, manga, magazines, whatever.  It was better than any library.

But that was the problem.  People loved to browse Borders but not buy from them because their books were so bloody expensive, particularly in Australia (I’ll get to that in a sec).  If they were on super duper special, then maybe, you’d consider buying a book or two, but everybody knew that Borders was a place where you went to do your research, not the place you’d ultimately purchase the books from.

These days, especially, it’s all online.  Not just e-books but also paper books from places such as The Book Depository and Amazon.  Yes, if all things were equal, Australian consumers would no doubt want to purchase locally — but when prices were, excluding GST, 35% higher, or in many cases, 50% higher, financial considerations always trumped loyalty.

No wonder Borders struggled so much.  The stores tended to be in areas where the rent was ridiculous.  They required loads of staff and the wide range meant stacks of inventory.  Without competitive prices, they really had no chance.

Interestingly, the online chatter that has come out of the closures have been similar to my sentiments.  Most bemoan the loss of a terrific place to ‘browse’ books, but not much more than that.  Some were even glad that these evil big book chains which bully the independent booksellers have gotten their comeuppance.

Does this represent a fundamental shift in the publishing industry?  If supposedly mighty bookchains such as Borders are collapsing, it makes me wonder what the future holds for other chains such as Angus & Robertson and Dymocks, and to a lesser extent, Kinokuniya.

Is it finally time for the parallel importing restrictions to be lifted?  For those who don’t know, Australia has in place restrictions intended to protect local publishers and writers.  If an Australian holder of publishing rights to a particular title decides to publish it within 30 days of the book becoming available elsewhere in the world, then Australian booksellers are prohibited from importing the title from overseas.

A Productivity Commission report in 2009 recommended that these restrictions be lifted, partly because the bulk of the benefits stemming from the restrictions flowed to offshore publishers and authors, rather than local ones.  The recommendation was never acted upon because of campaigns from domestic publishers and authors, who also have very valid arguments.  Opening the already fragile Australian book industry to the rest of the world has potentially frightening consequences for everyone.

No easy answers, unfortunately.  I just hope the remaining bookchains in Australia have enough support to keep battling on.

Farewell, Borders.