Housing Complex

If Borders Folds, Should We Mourn?

Borders Books and Music is in trouble. It's not done well in the rough-and-tumble world of online bookselling, and according to the people who follow such things, is meeting with investors as we speak to decide how it'll downsize. Signs are not good; the company already announced it would be closing one warehouse, and it's stopped paying publishers.

All of this is just to say: Borders will almost certainly be closing more stores–potentially all of them–and either of its two remaining locations in the District, in the Golden Triangle and Friendship Heights, could be shuttered (the downtown store announced it was closing back in June). After all, one of the company's biggest liabilities has been expensive leases, and D.C. has some of the highest rents in the country.

Why has Barnes and Noble fared comparatively better than Borders? Mostly, it has to do with e-strategy. According to publishing industry analyst Michael Norris, Borders blundered by partnering with Amazon.com for its book sales, and the online superstore had no incentive to help encourage brick-and-mortar sales, which Barnes and Noble's integrated site did much better. Then there was the rewards card mistake: Borders started with a free membership program, which customers didn't really value. Barnes and Noble went with a paid rewards card with deep discounts, which brought in more in membership fees and paid itself back in increased sales.

The average person walking around D.C., however, doesn't care so much about all that: The more important comparison is how their respective stores function as public space. On this point, D.C.'s Barnes and Nobles thump its Borders, for reasons that don't become apparent until you think about why.

The abysmal Borders basement. (Lydia DePillis)

I've never much liked hanging out in Borders. To figure out the source of that discomfort, I browsed again through its store on 18th and L Street NW. Like its old store on 14th Street, this one is set up with a subterranean level, which you have to enter via a long staircase in the middle of the sales floor. The lower level feels like a basement, with low ceilings and bright fluorescent lights. The shelves are set up in alcoves, which create an unsettling sense of separation from the rest of the floor. Signage is antiseptic and plain; merchandise is piled haphazardly, like you're in a warehouse. The checkout area is fairly unadorned, reminiscent of a grocery checkout line.

Barnes and Noble, by contrast, is typically set up with a lofted second floor. That does a few things: First, it necessitates a grand escalator, which is a wonderful way of surveying a world of books laid out below. And second, it feels more like a cozy attic, which you'd much rather hole up and read in than a basement. At both its downtown and Georgetown locations, the cafes are upstairs with some natural light; the downtown Borders cafe is tucked away on an interior hallway. In addition, Barnes and Noble puts much more care into its graphics–a serif font conveys bookishness–with mass-produced but still attractive artwork on the walls. Sturdier bookshelves and tables carry at least a whiff of the the old library feeling. This is a bookstore, not a storage unit.

Nevertheless, it will be a loss for L Street if Borders closes. That corridor is one of the city's most unfriendly, with chain lunch places and glistening lobbies making up the sidewalk frontage. Could Borders' disappearance leave an opening for an independent bookstore, more along the lines of Politics and Prose? The kind of place that would have staff recommendations,  author reading events that packed the rafters, and a non-corporate cafe that sold a full menu of locally produced food?

Not necessarily–indies and chains have different target audiences. But Norris thinks that if a new store actively reached out to Borders' old customers, it might have a chance of capturing them. Big, glorious, independent–and web-savvy–bookstores like Powells in Portland, Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, and the Strand in New York do wonderfully in large downtown locations. Kramerbooks is nice to have in Dupont, but it's more of a restaurant, not the kind of sprawling hangout spot with soaring shelves and both used and new inventory.

Barnes and Noble's better, but it's no Powells.

D.C.'s supposed to be the most literate city in America, for crying out loud. We need bookstore that satisfies those literary urges, without having to hump ourselves up Connecticut Avenue–it's what a living downtown is all about.

  • steve childers

    this is the worst written article I have read in months. You do not know what you are talking about. Borders is much better than B&N. Reading your piece was a waste of time. Please do better research before your next effort.

  • …done

    laid off Steve?

  • http://popsins.tumblr.com Mike Riggs

    No general interest indie could survive at 18th and L. Downtown is a ghost town on the weekends. An indie bookstore and CVS would be the only two places open for blocks and blocks.

  • http://www.pennyideas.com Paul London

    I'm starting to think that the death of ANY book store is something we should mourn. While I admit to doing most of my book shopping online, I'd hate to think that in some towns and cities the only place to find books will be the library. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but I already miss the Borders that's already gone from my home town.

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  • David Underwood

    To Mr London: put your money where your mouth is. If you want a bookstore in your neighborhood or town, shop at the one(s) you have or they will DISAppear. End of story.

  • http://www.6qCreative.com Holly

    Yes, I would. Here's the eulogy: http://bit.ly/hgigde

  • http://americanfiction.wordpress.com Mark Athitakis

    If you're looking to browse for new books in a cosy enviroment, there are a couple of tables at Second Story in Dupont that have a healthy number of recent releases---suggesting to me that it's one of the first places area book critics dump their castoffs. Further down P Street, Books for America occasionally gets a decent supply of newer books. Most of the newness of Kramerbooks, none of the noise!

    Talk to the owners of the (sadly now shuttered) Vertigo Books if you want some perspective on just how difficult it is to sell new books close to downtown DC.

  • Maggie

    Since moving to DC a year ago I've been shocked that the most dynamic parts of the city exist without great, thriving, independent booksellers. I agree that Borders is not Politics & Prose, but given the lackluster state of DC booksellers, any sort of loss hurts.

  • Michael E. Grass

    The original Border's Books on State Street in Ann Arbor, Mich., became a great independent book store, Shaman Drum. That store closed down. A Five Guys is now in its spot.

  • Peter

    I agree with Steve. This article appears to be written by an amature.

  • J

    I agree totally with the article. Borders reminds me of the early 90s of bookstores with its layout and design. The Barnes and Noble is way more attractive and with the times. I will definitely be sad with any bookstore that closes. BTW Second Story Books on P st is a great way to get new releases on the cheap- not to mention vintage posters.

    Steve instead of being a negative nancy- why dont u write the freaking article ugh

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @Michael Grass

    That original Borders in Ann Arbor didn't really close down exactly, it just moved down the street and around the corner to a larger building.

  • Lydia DePillis


    At least I can spell.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    1. I agree with you that despite DC's seeming literacy, we don't support bookstores very well, and especially independents. I was just thinking of this while downtown today, as I was desperately looking for today's issue of the Washington Business Journal, and there are few newsstands, etc. + I was thinking of the demise of Olsson's and Trovers.

    2. Sadly, I also agree with your assessment of B&N vs. Border's in terms of the experiential quality of the store experience generally. They do a better job, and some of the Borders (like the Silver Spring store) really pale compared to the average B&N Superstore.

    3. And you don't know how hard it is for me to say that. Those of us who went to the U of Michigan before the mid-1980s patronized Borders before there was ever a second Borders Store (I think the second was in 1984 in Birmingham, but they already had a wholesale division supplying independents in various markets--often these stores were started by people who had worked for Borders in Ann Arbor) have a great deal of love for the company, recognizing its roots in truly independent bookselling.

    4. I don't know about the online and loyalty card stuff, u r probably right. I do believe that the other major problem was the failure to keep people in the business with a reverence so to speak for books. Borders from a corporate standpoint has been f*ed for years. When they considered going public instead they got bought by Kmart, which went through this period of branching out into superstores [Borders, Office Depot, Builders Square, etc.) instead of focusing where they needed to--on their own business and offer--and the people at the top were out of the discount field, not bookselling so much. Then Borders was spun off with other leaders etc. I think this led to the problem you identified in terms of the quality of their store experience.

    It's a real shame. I loved that "first" store (It wasn't really, it was the third iteration, the first sold textbooks, the second was a small shop, the third was on State Street, the fourth took over the old Jacobson's Dept. Store on Liberty). I was afraid to try to get a job there because you had to pass a test on book knowledge, and I have always been weak in the humanities...

    but for sometime now, I've felt that the quality of the store experience in B&N, for the most part, is far superior to Borders.

    Good piece.

  • Rick Mangus


  • Jon Bon Jovi


    Who cares!

  • Jon Bon Jovi

    LOL@Lydia DePillis

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    burberry holl google

  • Sarah

    I've been selling books for 13 years, and have worked for Borders, B&N, and several independants. About 5 years ago, Borders started pushing out its experienced staff to save money. People noticed the difference.
    And I definitely agree with #5 - if you want a bookstore in your town/city, patronize the one you have. Online shopping doesn't support your neighbors.

  • luisa

    I am not surprised that Border's is having trouble. I really tried to like that store, be it in S Fla., N NJ, Lower Westchester or upstate NY, but at every location I encounter incompetent, unhelpful store personnel. If this is happening at all these locations, then it is not as issue of an individual store or store manager but of a systemic problem within the corporation. I have been going to B&N for decades and almost never have had a problem and the few times I did it was solved to my satisfaction. At Border's, in contrast, I have had several problems just in the last few years. I have sent written complaints via email but they were never answered and I tried to bring problems to the attention of store managers but their only response seems to be there is nothing to be done. I can only assume this kind of treatment DRIVES customers AWAY. I live brick and mortar bookstores and a few years ago I made the decision to give all my business to B&N and not to Border's. I guess many other customers made the same choice. So I am not surprised Borders is having problems.

  • Gabrielle

    I would miss Borders. I for one prefer a loyalty program that's free. I like getting the coupons and the discounts that Borders gives without having to give them $25 a year. I don't buy enough books in a year to make that worth my while. Why? Because I don't love books? You haven't seen my house. I do love them. But I have priorities for my money (like adopting 2 children internationally--which is why I'm in Poland right now) that leaves me less to buy books and pay for loyalty programs. So I go to B&N usually to browse, or to look in the Bargain Books section. I go to Borders when I want to buy a book.

  • Anne Kubeck

    We here at Borders Group, Inc. don't give a damn about what you customers think. We hate books and don't read. We just want to make money.

    Ms. Anne Kubeck Executive Vice President

  • http://onemorepagebooks.com Katie F

    A new indie bookstore is opening in Arlington! It's right off the East Falls Church metro stop near the Econo Lodge. It should be opening this week, so stop by!

  • Erika

    @ Gabrielle: As a current employee at B&N, we don't force you to get a membership in order to get benefits. If you want something free, sign up for the email lists.

    As far as preferring a "rewards" program over a pay-off-as-you-go membership, people tend to get the wrong idea. Books are the same price (generally speaking) at both places; depending on what you wish to purchase, it may be discounted, who knows? The problem with "reward" programs is that it requires you to spend money in order to save. Realistically speaking, the amount that you are spending far surpasses the amount you will be saving with a singular 44% off coupon you receive next month.

    And on an off-topic, I cannot tell you how many customers come into B&N and gripe about Borders' customer service; it seems as though this is a common trend.

  • Pinky Sidewinder

    Is Powell's a chain all the way out there? I'm in Portland, and the central Powell's doesn't have much in the way of comfy seating. It also doesn't have nearly enough seating. It's really really great, though.

  • Michael

    Barnes and Noble is superior to Borders. Nicely written article.

  • Can’tshop@BnN

    I once went to a B&N and asked for help finding a book (which I couldn't find on the shelf) by Margaret Atwood. I was taken, without irony, to the Cliff's Notes by the B&N employee.

    I once worked at a Borders. Their business practices are wretched, they can't keep a CEO (or hire a competent one), they overspend, under-staff with people who are under qualified(thus the shoddy customer service), and generally make all the wrong business decisions. I'm sure B&N isn't much better, but as this article attempts to illustrate, B&N isn't completely sinking...Borders is.

    A solution? Shop local and independent. Is it sad if another Borders dies? No.

  • DCGuy44

    Is it sad Borders is closing?

    Not really. I mean I'd like to see more independents.

    And everyone talking about bookstores downtown. What about Reiter's Books down on 19th and G? Great little store with a cafe, indoor/outdoor seating, and an awesome selection of books, games, and posters. I always really liked that place, it's a shame more people don't know about it.

  • Phil

    The flagship Borders store in Ann Arbor was once a great bookstore, and it's been sad to see it get hollowed out over time. They got rid of the experienced employees who curated their sections with care, replaced the cafe with a crappy chain product, and hollowed out the book inventory, replacing it with higher-margin stationery. (That store probably has 40% of the books it once had.)

    Meanwhile, the stores I've visited in DC have all been worthless. No wonder they are on the brink of bankruptcy.

  • GW

    Here's the thing. The thing to watch for.

    Fewer new books being sold means fewer *used* books in circulation, and therefore fewer used book *stores.*

    Which is what the booksellers want.

    Ebooks do not, in essence, exist. They cannot be lent, shelved indefinitely, or sold second-hand.

    They are, in fact, rented.

    When your particular e-reader ages off in a few years, just like your iTunes "library" of music, the ebooks you've bought will all need to be purchased again, in a new, updated, "e-format" -- if you still want to own them.

    And, should the power fail, your entire library will vanish in the flash or a circuit-breaker.

    The closing of bookstores causes the industry no concern whatsoever.

    It's all part of the plan.

  • Ash

    Actually I'm sad it's closing. The Borders I go to, I love to death. Know it like the back of my hand. It's going to be hard to see it go.

  • Brian Jay Rinaldo

    As a former Borders' employee I am insulted at the people who choose to blame Borders failures on it's (mostly) hardworking staff. The utter failure of the music industry to adjust to the twenty-first century, the development of deep discounting at Amazon and even large box stores are amongst a few of the issues that plagued Borders. There is only so much you can expect of individuals who have worked under four ceos in a five year span. Borders is most likely in the process of going away but not because it's employees don't love or care about books but because of upper level fiscal mismanagement and incoherent strategies for the future. Two side note, bookstores are stores, not reading venues for you to take in a whole book and or magazine; please browse, peruse, and otherwise examine your purchases but at the end of the day it is a for profit business. And the person pretending to be Anne Kubek ... she's been for quite some time, late 2009 I believe. Her emails may have been annoying and repetitive but the woman loved both Borders and books.

  • http://www.malnurturedsnay.net Malnurtured Snay

    The 2nd photo says "the abysmal basement", but it's actually a photo of the upper level.

    I've worked at that store for almost three years. I'm going to miss it.

  • http://www.malnurturedsnay.net Malnurtured Snay

    Also, Friendship Heights has a "lofted" second floor.

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