The news that the company that owns two large bookstore chains in Australia had gone into voluntary administration last week came like an expected cold, hard slap, particularly since it came the day after Borders in U.S. also revealed that it was going to administration too. Red Group, who took over Borders a few years ago, also owns Angus and Robertson, one the first and oldest bookstore chains in Australia.
Yes, it came out of nowhere that two ubiquitous, Goliath retail chains has been bought down on its knees but, really, those who frequently pop in to have squiz around can’t really be all that surprised. The stock is uninspiring, overpriced and usually always above the RRP, staff were usually rude, blase, or run off their feet, and the arrangement of books frequently made me dizzy (this last part might just be me). A couple of years ago, I posted a rant about Borders and I suspect that many of their little faults have all become one huge mess.
Yes, the store’s design was well decked out and it really did looked inviting but I rarely bought anything from there. Exceptions were their sometimes fabulous coupons they would send out in their weekly emails. I always waited for their 30-50% off ones but it really irritated me that they would force us to print out the actual coupons when they didn’t actually need it. They scanned their own plastic barcode up at the register. Not really saving the environment.
Another concept I never really quite understood was the store’s ‘mission’. Did they want us to buy books, meet friends, grab some magazines/stationery/DVDs/music, or grab a coffee? I understand that they wanted to create a welcoming and comfortable environment for customers to be able to settle down to browse their potential purchases and to do so without any pressure but I think they did that a little too well. People treated the store like a library. They would grab a book or magazine, settle down at the cafe at the back and flip through it therefore damaging the product (I don’t know about anybody else but when I buy new books, I like them pristine!), then they see their friends or decide that their train is due to arrive and then rush off without making a purchase. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve seen someone snoozing on one of the couches!
The biggest criticism regarding Borders is, of course, the way they stormed into Australia around five years ago and pushed out other smaller, independent bookstores. Borders seemed to have thought that bigger was better and I think we were all seduced by its shininess and newness. I know I was. It was a haven filled with books – a basic bibliophile want. But I suppose they forgot that bibliophiles also know their books and know what they want. Not rows and rows and only rows of the latest top thirty. After awhile, we crave something of substance, of some individuality, quirkiness or eccentricities found in the best independent stores. My love relationship with the chain ended in 2009 when they didn’t have any Camus, de Beauvoir or Sartre in stock when I wanted to use my gift card. A store that large that finds room for a cafe and rows of imported and overpriced magazines but none of the most influential and well known authors had certainly lost its way for me.
Like the Starbucks giant that came, conquered and then disappeared, Borders have also been felled in a similar way. Too big, too fast, too much. Except this time, unlike Starbucks, I’ll be sorry to see it go. Yes, Borders had its faults in term of quality and service and yes, I did end up skulking back in time and time again with discount coupons in my hand but really, if something had to dominate retail space, I would much rather it be books.
The future of the book industry has never been clear, particularly for the past decade but I still think that the ‘old fashioned’ bricks and mortar bookstores will prevail despite a new mammoth bookstore taking over the world. Will it go down the way of Borders in half a decade’s time? It is certainly rather dire times for book retail but right now, I’m just shouting a little hurrah for those independent bookstores that have withstood the onslaught of such a large corporation.
Other interesting viewpoints, largely debating online vs offline purchasing:
Finally, here’s a clip from the wonderful Black Books where Bernard and Manny competes with Saga books:
Watch for 2:29. 🙂