Thursday, July 21, 2011
Borders Bites the Dust
The obituary for Borders Group, the competitor of Barnes & Noble bookstores, Amazon.com’s bookselling operation, and scores of independent bookstores around the nation, appeared in the July 20 edition of The Wall Street Journal.
There was a time if you were the owner of a great paddlewheel boat on the Mississippi, you were golden. Passengers and goods moved in both directions. By the standards of the day, you were a very wealthy man. Then the railroads began laying track, connecting cities, towns, and finally the two coasts. Riverboat use dried up; often literally as they were abandoned if they got beached on a sandbar.
Henry Ford put a lot of blacksmith shops, stables, farriers, carriage makers, and horse traders out of business with his Model A, little black car. Pretty soon towns and cities were laying roads and highways as fast as they could to keep up with Americans who took to driving cars with a passion that has not ceased.
It is a mark of how out of touch with reality Barack Obama is that he keeps babbling about high speed train travel when even the government-owned Amtrak has never made a profit since it was organized in 1971. Despite the miseries inflicted on Americans by the TSA, people still get on planes to do business in Des Moines or visit the folks in Sarasota.
New Technology Drives Out Old Technology
New technology drives out old technology and Borders specialized in one of the oldest technologies going back to the days of Johannes Guttenberg in 1452 and his use of metal moveable type with which to print books. The Chinese had invented moveable type much earlier, but used wooden type. Books, however, have remained essentially the same, printed on paper, often illustrated, piling words upon words to convey information or just to entertain with a good story.
Despite the loss of 10,700 jobs and the closing of its many locations, the loss of Borders is not the loss of people who love to read books and buy them, too. Even the Barnes & Noble chain is looking for a buyer and I suspect its days may be numbered. Amazon.com revolutionized the way Americans bought books in the Internet age, but many people still favor the local bookstore and they may actually enjoy a bit of a revival once the two big chains are gone.
For some fifty years I have had a particular vantage point from which to watch the book market. Many years ago I was a fairly regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, the primary trade magazine for the book trade. It was and still is filled with the excitement of discovering new authors and tracking the established ones. However, it is the business of the book trade that is its focus.
I have been a book reviewer for so long I can actually boast that I was a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle in 1974. There are awards named after the people I knew who helped found it, Ivan Sandrof and Nona Balakian, both delightful and both deceased.
For me, books are about my self-education and entertainment. I like sharing news of them in my monthly report, Bookviews.com, but I have felt no need to rub shoulders with fellow reviewers, most of whom—like myself—do not make a dime. You may have noticed that the book sections of most daily newspapers have long since disappeared, the Dodo birds of literary criticism.
The best news of recent times is the phenomenon of the Harry Potter series which actually enticed young people to read, to grip a book in their hands, turn the pages, and sigh when they had reached the end. And, of course, one can always read a book again!
The new gadgets, Kindle, Nook, whatever, are just another way to read books. Someone still has to write them and someone has to take a gamble and publish them. Increasingly, that someone is the authors themselves. Here, too, modern technology allows one to have books printed on demand so you need only order as many as you require depending on sales.
One of the most interesting trends for me is the way many authors of really good novels have simply bypassed the mainstream publishing houses. With a printer and an Internet site, plus word of mouth, a book can generate enough sales to often be published later by the same publishing house that might have earlier rejected it!
So, goodbye Borders. No doubt those lost jobs will add a digit or two to the nation’s growing unemployment rate and those stores will be rented out to tattoo parlors, nail salons, and others.
But not goodbye to books! If television bores you silly, try reading. Your brain will thank you.
© Alan Caruba, 2011