Closing the Big Box Book

What if they threw a buyout and no one came? That’s what happened last week to Borders bookstores, and as a result the big box media chain has begun liquidating.

Some will look at this event as a sign of the nation’s increasing economic woes, or as an indication of an empire in decline. Others will see this occasion as a symptom of advanced anti-intellectualism in America.

I’m not convinced that either of those arguments really hold any water, but they do make for some great fear-mongering.

In any free-market economy there are going to be losers and winners. Certainly, it’s startling when a large national retail chain becomes one of the losers, but the path of capitalism is littered with the detritus of fallen brands (Pan Am, Woolworth, Saturn, and Pennsylvania Railroad, to name a few).

What does the bankruptcy of Borders say about our culture? I believe that as our people’s basic needs are being met by pervasive, omnipresent national brands, those people increasingly turn to their smaller local communities for specialized needs.

The closure of Borders bookstores is indicative of the great wave of the shopping mall–that crested in the late 80’s–finally receding. For nearly the entire history of the world, shopping was a series of encounters with very specialized providers. You needed flour? You went to a mill. You needed meat? You went to Sam the butcher. To our modern eyes it was a drawn-out and exasperating process, but the business model of craftsman-as-sole manufacturer demanded it. In the 19th century, that started to change.* People began ordering unrelated products through catalogs. Eventually department stores were invented, and people started destination shopping--that is, going to one place for all their needs. We were just a short hop at that point from the mall and the death of the boutique.

But then the Internet happened, and the whole idea of the “store” got all mucked up.** Anyone could sell anything (or any number of things) to anyone else, anywhere in the world. At first, this was novel and exciting, but eventually it became just another way to shop. We buy our Xmas presents on Amazon, we buy our music from iTunes, and we buy weird knitted garden gnome scarves from Etsy†. The Internet became the destination, and the individual websites were able to go back to the making-and-selling-one-type-of-thing-expertly model.

This change in consumer attitude wasn’t the only thing that did in Borders (they bungled a lot, and made some dumb choices that were obviously wrong at the time), but it contributed. It’s something that other companies (or anyone who sells or buys anything) should examine, and see where they fit in in this new-market thinking.

*Yeah, there were merchants who traded in a number of goods long before the then, but such variety was a rarefied thing. I say modern shopping happened after the Civil War.
**for the better, IMO.
†that’s what you use Etsy for too, right?

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