Could the Demise of Borders Have Been Prevented?

  • SumoMe

I have to admit it: I’m a traditionalist when it comes to reading.

I love the feel of a crisp newspaper or a book. While I am going to go the Amazon Kindle route like the rest of the world, I hope the printed word, on real paper, won’t entirely disappear.

That’s why I was truly saddened to see the Borders bookstore chain fall into bankruptcy and disappear from the retail landscape.

I remember the day Borders opened their first flagship store in Center City Philadelphia in the early 1990’s. They revolutionized book retailing with unmatched selection, author lectures, a café and community events. They had the same innovation DNA that Jeff Bezos used to build

While I get free review copies sent to me by book publisher publicists trying to pitch authors for my show on WPHT 1210-AM Radio, I still bought my fair share of books at Borders, Barnes and Noble and independent book shops whenever I could.

The Rise of the Bookstore Hobos

But late in Borders life, I observed a sad change. The cafes transformed from being a gathering place for coffee and conversation to something I can only describe as “bookstore hobos.” These people, clearly bookworms, would buy a $2 coffee and plop down a pile of books to read!

These cheapskates would nurse that single coffee for hours while voraciously consuming Borders’ books and magazines for free.

I wonder if these so-called “customers” understood they were crossing the line from browsing to full-blown retail freeloaders. If these book lovers had shown a little bit more love to Borders by buying more than a cheap cup of coffee, maybe Borders would have been able to survive a little bit longer.

I recently passed by the vacant Borders store in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia where I live nearby. It’s sad to see something that had been so vibrant for so long now dark and eerily quiet. Perhaps if more people stopped treating Borders as their personal library and reached for their wallet and bought a book or two once in a while, things would be different.

I’m a realist. There will always be retail Darwinism and companies that don’t change and innovate will go extinct. I know it’s difficult to compete against a visionary like Jeff Bezos. Amazon is now one of the world’s leading retailers and the Kindle e-book reader is definitely a game changer.

But if you really are a book lover and you walk into a bookstore, you ought to walk out with more than a $2 cup of coffee.

What do you think?

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29 Responses to Could the Demise of Borders Have Been Prevented?

  1. Dan Hazley June 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    “These cheapskates would nurse that single coffee for hours while voraciously consuming Borders’ books and magazines for free.”, says it all. Receive a service for the price of a cup of coffee. I can’t figure an approach that would otherwise counter the American Consumers “want” for something FREE. I wonder if a partnership with the everyday Library and Border type stores could have headed this off.

    • Dom June 17, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

      I thought the cafes were innovative and encouraged a sense of “community.” But too many so-called customers took their browsing to an extreme. You see the same thing in many Starbucks locations- people buy a single coffee, plug in their laptops (using Starbucks electricity) and make it their workplace for hours. In NYC, many of the Starbucks are starting to crack down on what are being called “laptop hobos.” Good for them.

      • Marion Mass February 1, 2016 at 8:43 am #

        I prefer indie coffee shops(we have those in Doylestown) We have Indie bookstores too! One general, and one just for children… you should really come visit, as they are great places.

        Yes, the big bookstores get abused…Seinfeld’s George Costanza abused not only the store, but also the book he took to the bathroom. I told my husband laughingly as we both needed the restroom at the Constitution center, “honey, each of us can hold onto the books while the other uses the bathroom. I don’t want to ruin Chairman McCaul’s book!”

        • Dom February 4, 2016 at 1:50 am #

          It’s creeping into other retail environments. They call it showrooming. People see something in the stores, then buy it online to save money.

    • Don Landry April 7, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

      You make a very salient point about these possible free loaders at bookstores. I am not a big book reader, but I would be embarrassed to act like that at any bookstore or anywhere else.

      • Bruce May 31, 2015 at 5:56 pm #

        If I deliberately took advantage of the store hospitality, I would feel guilty. With the rise of Secular Humanism, if it feels good then do it, guilty feelings are old fashioned since you cannot be judged by anybody for what you do.

  2. Pasquale June 24, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    As an author of two books, I can appreciate your views on the subject. An occasional acquaintance will comment that they read my books at B&N. I ask if they would like for me to sign them. Their reply is that they read them at the cafe and didn’t actually have a copy.

    Man people think that you should pull a copy out of the trunk of your car and give them one. I don’t mind giving complimentary copy but, maybe half won’t read it. That’s what hurts the most.

    The large book stores are in the process of becoming largely electronic media sellers. I hate the thought of going electronic. I know I won’t make any money. I will be lucky to break even.
    But I would like to have more people read them. What good is having something you created a with no one to appreciate it?

    Books are warm the e books are cold. They are the blow up dolls of the literary world.

  3. Kym August 21, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    I guess I’m kind of naive of what the people congregating in the cafe’s were doing. I am appalled! A friend of mine recently suggested that I hop over to a local B&N to break a writers block by changing my physical environment but now, listening to you and the follow-up posts I think I may go write in a park.

    I’ve always seen a link between the rise of Amazon and the decline in book stores and music stores. I too miss the feel of the book/album in my hands but have finally made the transition to Kindle and Ipod.

    This deeper knowledge bothes me so. I would never consider sitting and reading a WHOLE book. I might check out a few pages to see if a book caught me but, a whole book? Where do these morals come from? Where do we, as a society get the belief that we can do something like that? ::::: sigh :::::

    Thanks Dom, for opening my eyes and helping to expand my knowledge, even though it was uncomfortable.


  4. Doreen McGettigan August 30, 2012 at 12:12 am #

    As an new author I have been blessed to be able to travel with my book to book stores across the country. I too get infuriated when I watch people sit in Barnes & Noble’s cafe for hours using the free wifi, talking on cell phones and reading magazines. A lot of them have been down right mean to me, when I ask them to take a look at my book.
    I also get to see people come into Barnes & Noble and spend hours browsing books and carefully selecting just the right ones. These people make me smile. My husband sells cars and says people take twice as long to chose a book as they do a car.
    It has been my dream for many years to stand in a book store behind a table full of my books, meeting and talking with people that came to see me. It is heartbreaking to think it may all end. I am going to keep hoping the Independents will some how find a way back into the game.

  5. Pauline Bersani October 2, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    Dom, I too, am a lover of books who has recently given in to buying a tablet. As much as I miss holding a book, I love being able to buy a book online and receiving it in seconds. However, I’ve been told that I no longer have to buy books online, that I can go to my local library and sign up to borrow books with my tablet. I haven’t done this yet because I think of all the books that will never be sold if this possibility becomes widespread. My greatgrandchildren may never know the joys of book reading. How sad.

    • Dom October 2, 2012 at 9:03 pm #

      I agree, Pauline. While reading and accessing books has certainly become more convenient, there is just something about the feel of a book in your hands. When I was a teacher, I used to go to one of those paperback exchanges where you could buy books for a quarter or less. I gave books to kids so that the love of reading would take root in their lives. Regardless of technology, it comes down to parents and families to instill a passion for reading and books in their kids.

  6. Bill Stettler October 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    Another insightful article Dom. Retail Darwinism , as you note certainly applies. The greater failure perhaps would be their post mortum, “They built it, and they watched it die. Although sympathetic to the issue, I have no remorse to a businesses incompetence to survive. Hopefully B&N will not suffer a simuliar fate.”

  7. HardCopy Boy November 24, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    I don’t think that bookstore hobos killed Borders. Their number is small, the damaged books could be returned to the publisher for full credit, and the hobos would probably not have bought anything if the cafe’ did not exist.

    The problem is that the brick and mortar book retail model is dead. There is no money selling books in retail stores. I cannot understand how Barnes and Noble’s stores have been able to make a profit.

    For that reason, I hope that someone figures out a model that would allow the return of mom and bookstores. However, until a profitable model can be devised, we will have to do everything that we can to support the remaining stores.

  8. feudi January 8, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    I’m sure the Borders book hobo’s did not help, but that chain bankrupted because of the economic conditions in book publishing. The hobo’s simply relocated to public libraries, much to the consternation of the public. I heard a news story of how these libraries are now expanding their offerings into other media and commodities for public use. Some libraries now offer free use of such devices as digital cameras, MP3 players, Ipods, printers, laptops – you name it. I’m sure this expansion is being done to make our libraries more relevant but you worry about theft, broken equipment, etc. Something to watch very carefully in today’s budget conscious environment.

  9. bob January 22, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    The demise of brick and mortar bookstores has been caused by the rise of internet shopping, in much the same way that “record” stores went the way of the dinosaur. (Let’s not forget that the young do not read books as we did years ago.) I do not see the small numbers of those who sit there all day reading while sipping their coffees as having any significant impact. If they sit there all day, that is probably a good indication that they do not have jobs and would not purchase books anyway.

  10. Dom January 23, 2013 at 12:05 am #

    I agree, Bob. The internet has TRANSFORMED shopping and shopping behavior. But to me, there is a bigger issue going on: so-called “shoppers” are crossing the line and becoming loiterers. I see people go to Starbucks, buy a coffee, plug in their laptop and camp out for hours. Just doesn’t seem right to me.

  11. AJ February 22, 2013 at 3:55 am #

    I will admit to owning a Kindle and liking the idea of portability for 100s of books. Also, I was an Amazon customer from early on and weekly avail myself of print books, mostly used, in subjects I enjoy. The phenomena of bookstore hobos is not endemic to bookstores. These same types will nest in coffee shops for hours, except there they buy one coffee and spend hours on their smart phones, laptops, and tablets. (See the episode of Portlandia where the city calls a Temp Agency to replace their mayor who resigned, the temp mayor’s executive order on coffee shops is a classic.) I call these children ages 18 to 25, I do not consider them grownups, the “hangout generation.” I think subconsciously they have accepted that if things keep going as they are they really have not future, and at best would have a future consisting of less than their parents. Their attitude seems to be one of “why bother?” They may be more in touch with the reality of today than we adults might want to admit.

  12. Dan February 22, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

    I used to stop at WAWA first and by Coffee and a Burritto before going in…just kidding, Dom, I loved to go in and sitting down to skim through books on subjects, that I would never normally read., but I doubt that I ever left the store without a purchase.
    Moving from Delco to Chesco, and finding the Chester County Library , pretty much ended my Book Store days, though. WOW, sometimes I find books in the sale racks that are still on the best seller list !
    I am dying to get a Kindle type device, but If I bring 1 more tech gadget in the house, my wife “Wilma Flinstone”, will throw me out !

    Great show, great blog, great outlook on life. Don’t ever leave .

    • Dom March 3, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

      Thanks, Dan. My best to you and “Wilma!” I appreciate your support.

  13. Sylvia June 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    I never understood why Barnes and Noble would allow people to read what they did not buy in their cafe in the first place.They made it easy and comfortable for people to sit and read their books in their store all day long every day like it was a library.They had great intentions but apparently didn’t think ahead as to how people would abuse their system.They could have had one of those stickers on their books that makes it set off a buzzer if they go into the cafe without paying for it first. Maybe then their prices wouldn’t have had to be so high. The last thing I bought in a Barnes and Noble brick and mortar store was a book for my husband’s nephew, Ryder. The Lorax. It was over $17 with tax, which I thought was overpriced but I know Ryder would love it and I knew a big part of that price was to help make up for the “book hobos” who freeload everything there.

    When I was in school I remember reading a book about kids in the future reading everything on a computer. They stumbled upon a regular book and didn’t know how to deal with it. I remember one of the characters saying, “I guess we’re just supposed to throw it away when we’re done with it.” That stuck with me all these years and I was only 10 at the time.

    As for Kindle…I don’t think I’ll ever want to buy one of those. Just being on the computer for more than an hour bothers my eyes and that feeling lasts for a few hours. Regular books don’t have that effect on me. I also like being able to find things I’m looking for quickly, highlight some things and write my own comments on certain things in the margins unless I plan to sell it on Amazon or give it to someone else. The online bookstores like Amazon have taken away from the brick and mortar ones. Since I sell books on Amazon I feel partly responsible for the demise of local bookstores. However I don’t think that this is the end of bookstores forever. I predict that they will make a comeback in several years when enough people realize what they’re missing and feel nostalgic about what has passed. Believe it or not even vinyl albums are making a comeback now. I’ve sold many of those too (so much that now my husband even wants to open a record store) so I think books will make a comeback too– just like that song says, “Everything Old Is New Again.”

  14. Craig Edelmann August 10, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    I couldnt agree with you more Dom. Personally I love newspapers and will always want to hold that paper in my hands as I peruse the news of that day. This to me in a sense is a “RIGHT OF PASSAGE” to adulthood , thats how strongly I feel. Granted, we have seen the advancement of an electronic media that has been quite exciting. At the same time we have seen these types of casualties along the way that are litterally reshaping our society. My fear is that READING itself is being threatened by electronic audio and video advancement. With electronic media, we have seen how some can gleen only the highlights of books or news articles and in effect getting only the CLIFF NOTES version of a story. As a former teacher, I’m sure you know how reading can contribute to the academic advancement of students as well as their communication skills. Hopefully , we can save this part of the worlds history of the printed word that extends from the written pictorials inside caves to the present day.

  15. Joe Flynn August 20, 2013 at 1:50 am #

    Like you I am a lover of books but I am not sure that the demise of Borders was due to Hobos drinking coffee reading books and then leaving the store without buying a book. I believe that mis-management was the real reason. Barnes and Noble seems to be struggling as well. I have to admit that I buy many books but I have been increasingly turning to the Phila Free library and ebooks. One problem I have with books is the limited value they seem to have after you purchase them. I do not have a house with enough space to keep a library of my own so I give most of my books away. With digital books keeping a library is more convenient and certainly requires less space. I am hopefull that real hard back and paper back books will continue to be produced but I am sure there will be changes that we will not especially like.

  16. George J. Mink III January 20, 2014 at 10:49 pm #

    Ah, “bookstore hobo’s.” Interesting to point out these types, I see them in many venues. I had them in my comic book shop very often. People would come in, not buy anything, and criticize every childrens book on the wall. Not entirely the same, but there is something similar here. What you are pointing out, Mr. Giordano, is the fact that anyone who frequented Borders on a regular basis knows that the printed word, and outlets thereof, are on the endangered species list, in light of the convenience of the linguistic minimalism that is dependence on that highly electro-magnetic, lithium filled computer.

    This is how I saw the Borders Cafe area. Sure, I could use it to read a few books without having to buy them, but being a faithful patron, I want that to always be there. Ergo, at least have the intention of purchasing at least on book if you plan on going, and refill that coffee. Keep hardback and paperback books in easy circulation. AFter all, books are permanent records of the past, where the internet is always liable to fall victim to some sort of catastrophe which would prevent access to knowledge.

    On a further note, my experiences in Borders made me ponder the notion that people had become just as anti-social in public places as they are on VIRTUAL social networks. The only read difference being, rather than tossing the insults one encounters on any given Facebook thread, people would, more often than not, avoid eye contact. This is another shame, and a waste of the atmosphere which is now gone.

    Such places should have been meeting places for people to share ideas and collaborate; perhaps even to plan and to publish books for Borders to sell. Heck, they may have even bought ad space in your zine, or sponsored your work to some degree if you were a regular, paying customer. We forget that “free enterprise” isn’t just about stabbing others in the back, it’s also “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Let’s help each other be better and contribute something to the world.”

    Alas, just as within my once comic book shop, this was not to be. We have become a highly complacent people, we take everything for granted, despite the obvious fact that all which is currently built,is built in a transitory/temporary fashion. I.E. Nothing new is designed to last for any great length of time. Look at the homes, the offices, or any other newly constructed building, if you doubt that claim. We have become over dependent on technology, so much so it is almost to the point of a religion. I see these people on the social networks preaching “Transhumanism,” which apart from it’s Hinduistic implications, involves merging with the machine.

    And that’s not the only place wherein this happens. I see many a coffee shop(the small mom and pop kind,as I expect such snobbery in a Starbucks), where someone buys one mug of coffee, then sits down for five hours, typing away. That Coffee shop won’t be there for you much longer at this rate, and nor will our libraries. Even the selection of Books at our Public Libraries, and at former Stores like Borders, still standing book shops like Barnes and Nobles, I have noticed the real books, that predicted and planned out this sort of behavior are not in stock.

    What we are labelling the Bookstore Hobo merely assisted, in a small way, in completing that which the likes of Kindle and your Smartphones have started. Beware the day we are all hooked up to these, and we are part of some terrible Hive Mind, like the victims of a Star Trek or Doctor Who villain. Can you imagine if they offered to implant the entire content of Borders’ stock on a chip in your head? How fast would people line up days ahead to get this installed, do you think? Immediately. It will be sold with a Snob Appeal, Silver Gold and Platinum grade chips, and we will all surrender our individuality(many of us did that at the age of 8), our humanity, and we can kiss the physical world of permanent record goodbye.

    It will still be some time before the “book” becomes obsolete, We have time to counter this, but to do so we need to cease adapting to every forced changed forced upon us as a “necessity.” I apologize if my analogy was a bit extreme, I know that sort of thing has been lumped in with “conspiracy theory,” but I feel the analogy is apt, and I’ve found and read many of the books I had alluded to, which back this up. And you can too, if you can stop playing candy crush for a few minutes.

    Apologies for the essay length response, folks, but these are my thoughts on the matter, and if we want Jobs to exist, we all need to play our part. Can we meet up somewhere and collaborate on an entrepreneurial idea, without having to set up a facebook page first? Can we talk to strangers in the bookstores and coffee shops? You never know, you may meet someone who can inspire you to achieve a goal for the good of all.
    –George Mink

    • Dom January 21, 2014 at 12:03 am #

      George, a very thoughtful essay. Sorry I had to edit some of it for length.

      As a business owner yourself, you would know better than most that there is a fine line between browsing and loitering. I actually cringed when you described the “bookstore hobos” who came into your store and left the way they came in: empty-handed. And then these are the people who cry the loudest when their favorite businesses close up shop. But here’s the reality: they are not your “favorite business” unless you dig into your wallet or pocketbook and GIVE THEM some of your business!

      • George Mink January 23, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

        True. Though, nearly everything I bought through Borders I had to get them to order, as that which I read is seldom in stock outside of the internet. Obviously, I’d rather deal with real people, face to face, eye to eye. I want shake hands and speak to an actual human being when I make a transaction.
        Similarly, I feel trifled when I walk into a CVS and I see ONE human cashier , and six to eight “Self Checkout” kiosks. The point I was aiming for above is that out dependence on technology is quickly getting out of hand . And I feel true fear when I see or hear people embracing and promoting “transhumanism.” Look up something called “H+.”

  17. Kathleen3 September 30, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    When Borders closed I felt as if I had lost a close friend. As someone living in a house that has walls lined from floor to ceiling with books I so appreciated the privilege of perusing books I considered purchasing while enjoying coffee.

    B&N should rent vs make available space within their stores for those students who spread their textbooks and plug in their laptops while taking up space at tables that would accommodate 4 people.

    I still appreciate the opportunity to briefly review books’ contents prior to purchase and agree that those who read vs purchase the books/magazines contribute to the Borders and B&N going the way of the dinosaur.

  18. Gloria April 20, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    I worked in our school library for 15 years and spent most of my time encouraging students to vary their reading material. We always had magazines even small pamphlets. The demise of books is directly related to the demise of the language caused by tech communications. Everything is abbreviated and short spelled to save space. Languasge and conversation is becoming a lost art. Gone is the joy of picking up reading material just for pleasure. Now anything that is being read is for information only. Sad. Sad. Sad

    • Dom May 31, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

      When Borders arrived on the scene, I was convinced this would energize people who love to read…and reel in people and help them re-discover their love of reading. I believe the reading habit takes root in the home. Parents are the ones ultimately responsible for instilling the reading habit in their children.

  19. Marion Mass February 1, 2016 at 8:56 am #

    My husband, a surgeon, was a lit major at Vandy, and is a consumate reader. We share a mutual love of books, as do all three kids….none of us have EVER owned or used anything like a kindle. I suppose they are convenient for those who travel, we just strain our arms carrying a slightly heavier suitcase. we love the feel of the pages and the ability to go back in the book and reread sections. My bookclub’s kindle-obsessed pals used to claim that they could do so on their kindle. But those of us who picked up the actual book could find our marked pages and the salient passage spot on the pages so much more quickly.

    When the kids were younger, the kindle thing was big, and I knew so many parents who told us that getting the kindle was going to vault their kids to the top of the reading charts. Not so, at least in our brood. So happy that we have kids that voluntarily have read the Oddyssey (unabridged) , parts of Moby Dick, and count Tennyson and Poe among their favorite poets.

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