It’s been a week and most of us are still reeling over the likely demise of Red Group Retail‑owned Angus & Robertson and Borders.
I wasn’t planning on weighing in on the debate, both because I don’t think I have all the answers and because I think others can say it much more incisively and eloquently than me. But having pored over the flurry of blogs and articles that have emerged over this last 10 or so days, I think there are a couple of things that need to be clarified.
First, while I would love to credit tenacious, community-based, customer service-driven, independent, ‘David’ retailers for toppling this big-box ‘Goliath’ (as some blogs are doing), I can’t. Because I’ve seen the inside of the behemoth and it wasn’t being toppled by independents nipping at its heels—it was already fundamentally going to pieces within.
Time now, for a confession of sorts: I once worked part-time at Borders. I’m not claiming to have been privy to the company’s financial statements, but I’ve had more experience in retail than I care to admit courtesy of a long, long university enrolment and subsequent need to feed myself. I’ve especially had experience in retail in a really competitive, low-margin environment courtesy of having worked for Sanity/Virgin/HMV for the better part of a decade. And it didn’t take a rocket scientist of an employee to know that things weren’t so good at Borders.
Morale was low, stock variety was reducing, prices were increasing, and changes to systems didn’t put the customer first (say, for example, the push to get customers to conduct their own searches and place orders via the online store, typing in their credit card details while other customers hovered nearby).
Staff weren’t being supported to do their jobs (the database we had to ‘use’ to find books was an absolute clunker and the customer order system nightmarishly random and manual). Staff’s vast book knowledge and passion wasn’t nurtured or drawn on, senior management was all but invisible, and the company was directionless and had no clear plan for winning customers back from the alluring cheaper online options.
The independents are surviving because they’re doing all the things that Borders didn’t—valuing their customers and working hard to find and then share the books they’ve found. But to say they kneecapped the giant with their above-and-beyond personalised service? No, the giant purely and simply shot itself in the foot in its fumbling.
We talk about mining magnates but not bookselling ones for a reason—there’s money to be made raping and pillaging the land for precious natural resources, but feeding the mind and soul appears to be less fruitful. There’s also a reason why independent bookshops don’t really branch out into multiple sites—the margins are tight, and the exhausting necessity of closing monitoring every dollar and every margin in every book brought in to be sold, as well as fostering personal relationships and subsequent trusted recommendations, is necessary but exhausting. Larger, multi-site operations dilute this.
Arguably, big-box retailers dilute this to the nth degree. Borders, for example, operated on a kind of ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy. And come they did. Even people who you’d least expect to be there would show up. I spotted more card-carrying ‘I support my local independents’ book buyers than you’d believe during my time working at Borders. Some of them bought books (because few book lovers can leave a bookshop without having fallen in love with and had to have some text-based tome-y goodness), but even more of them used Borders as a resource. A library resource.
And that’s perhaps the greatest tragedy of Borders’ demise: as a book retailer, it made a great library. Should it go under (as it’s reported based on the trends of companies that go into administration it has over a 90% chance of doing), we’ll lose an invaluable resource.
I long held reservations about what such a big-box retailer meant environmentally (and I’ve touched on this in a previous blog), with vast quantities of books being produced and shipped and then returned after having served as three-dimensional wallpaper to fill and flatter huge shelf space.
But I haven’t touched on how the vast shelf space and the initially diverse range of books enabled so many of us to see, smell, touch, and maybe even taste what was available on a given topic before purchasing it. It helped us put books side by side and pick the best one for our tastes and needs. It also helped us discover books we didn’t know existed and be swept up in the desire to read.
Sure, many people then took the knowledge they’d gained from picking staff’s brains about the available books, trawling the shelves, and flipping through the books, and then bought their book of choice at a cheaper, often online store. For many others, Borders was the closest they came to stepping into a library and conducting school or university research.
As a side note, I’ve often wondered why, although I’m a big library visitor, bookstores excite me much more. Methinks it’s because the books are shiny and new and merchandised nicely and are emitting the new-book drug/perfume that says buy or read me (or both).
There’s obviously a certain amount of schadenfreude to be had at Borders’ current and likely further demise. But while they might not have been the retailer you supported or wanted to support, as a library they supported us more than we probably realised.