From the closure of Borders and Angus and Robertson stores across the country, to Nick Sherry's prediction that bookstores won't exist within five years (What's he the minister for again? Oh, he's the Minister for Small Business. Good to know we've got his support!), you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire book industry is entering its end times.
Which, given that I work in a bookstore and would like to continue to do so, is an issue that strikes close to my heart.
But before we write the obituary, let's get a few things straight.
Borders didn't fail because of online trading, or e-books, or anything new-fangled like that. It failed because it was a bad bookstore. I used to work there, so I feel I can say this with perfect impunity: Borders was fucking shit.
If one day some Borders supremo had decided that they should stop selling books and start selling ... say, whitegoods, or clothes, or Volkswagens, nothing about the way the business ran would change. The fact that they sold books meant nothing to the people running the company. They would argue, I'm sure, that a business is a business, and then they'd point to pie-charts to explain why books should be treated like any other commodity. But book retail is (almost) unique, and can't be treated like you're running an 'anything' store. Why not? Because --- and this is probably the most un-cynical, high-falutin', philosophical-type thing I'll ever say on this blog --- books are important. Reading is important. Learning, and growing, and discovering are all important. Books are important.
In a good bookstore there will be a surfeit of knowledgeable staff who are enthusiastic about matching the right book to a customer's needs. At Borders there was a bunch of surly kids who didn't know a damn thing. Okay, this is an exaggeration, there were many good staff at both Borders I worked at ... but it's a slighter exaggeration than it should be. I worked alongside too many people who just didn't read, and had no interest in books at all.
And there were far too few of those surly kids anyway. Even if you did want to ask a question, good luck finding somebody to ask. When looking at ways to maximise revenue, Borders would always, always think first of cutting staff. Eventually their stores (vast expanses, all) were being run by skeleton crews. There weren't enough staff to help the customers, and there weren't enough staff to keep the store neat and tidy. That's not just my anal retentive side coming out, Borders un-alphabetised shelves were a massive problem: how can you sell somebody a book you can't find? Not once, in all my time at Borders, did any manager suggest that the state of the store might be having adverse effects on the bottom line, yet it was perfectly obvious to every member of the floor-staff. A manager did, at one point, suggest that if the computer showed we had one copy of something we should tell the customer we were sold out, to save us the time of searching for a book we'd never find. Can a store that contemptuous of its customers ever survive?
So then, if you're selling fewer books, how to make up the shortfall? Immediately after they were taken over by the REDGroup (hacks and morons, I guarantee), Borders went through their entire backlist, marking up prices to RRP +10%. With the exception of the discounted new releases that they stacked up the front, every single book, CD and DVD in their stores was more expensive than it should have been. They hoped, I'm sure, that people simply wouldn't notice. Which I guess is another pretty neat illustration of the utter contempt with which they treated their customers.
As the bills mounted up, Borders stopped paying the distributors, who stopped sending books to Borders stores. Major releases were simply skipped by the entire company. Long before they officially closed, I wandered into the Borders on Lygon Street to wile away a bit of time before seeing a movie at the Nova. Dave Eggers' book Zeitoun had just come out: a major new work by a major writer. Borders didn't have it. Across the road, Readings had a pile the size of an elephant. I knew Borders was dead that day, and that was nearly two years ago. Since then, it's just been the carcass twitching.
And former colleagues of mine, take heart, it wasn't your fault. The company simply didn't have any interest in letting you be booksellers, rather than check-out chicks.
I used to work at Borders. Now I work at a bookstore. End rant. (And check it out, now I'm punning bilingually!)
currently reading: The March by E.L. Doctorow
books to go: 103