Friday, 25 December 2009

The Ghost Of Borders Past

Don't forget folks - only one Christmas day left until shopping days again!
Will you survive?

Only don't expect to find next year's Yoga For Cats calendar in your local Borders store as Borders (UK) is no more.

Innovative calendars were not the only thing Borders brought to these shores. I well remember the time about 10 years ago when my-then boyfriend telephoned to say he'd seen these amazing new bookshops on a business trip to Canada where you could drink a cup of coffee whilst reading the merchandise. 'But what if you bend the covers or spill coffee on them?' I asked incredulously. 'And how do they make a profit if no one buys the books?' My boyfriend did not know the answers but said the bookshops also seemed to host events and be open long after other stores had shut.

You could have knocked me down with a feather when a year or two later the first Borders appeared in Oxford Street, quickly followed by branches in every major city.

When Oxford Borders first opened, it couldn't have been more welcoming. A huge range of bookcases right at the front heaved with novels and books by local authors who were promoted to the hilt with generous reviews from the staff. Author events abounded. All sorts of arty and booky groups were invited to form and host nightly meetings in the shop, plied with complimentary coffee. Myself and Back Room Poets had a monthly open mic in the Sports Section. The coffee shop was staffed by staff who did not seem to know how any of the machines worked but were unfailingly smiley and friendly even if it did take 20 minutes to get a cappuccino. It was great to have somewhere to go in the evenings that was not a pub or a club and while I worried at first about the effect of this newcomer on local bookshops, in actual fact the slant of Borders stock was more Stateside and did not cross over as much as one might imagine with the likes of Blackwells. In addition it also did audio, DVD, stationery, magazines and a coffee shop. Rather than putting other bookshops out of business it encouraged them to raise their game by providing coffee shops and customer loos, hosting events and generally moving with the times. People queued out into the street when Michael Palin came to promote his latest book. The nearby Sheldonian Theatre was hired and filled for a state visit from Jane Fonda!

As time went on however, Borders became a little less friendly and more corporate. A pointless makeover resulted in cheaper and more supermarkety-looking bookshelves, ghastly lighting, a worse events area, where an improved one had been promised, locks on the customer loos, a Starbucks franchise in the once-endearingly inefficient cafe. Various discussion groups began disbanding, a hostile anti-poetry manager put paid to our monthly Open mics, lack of continuity among the shift-worker staff, none of whom seemed to stay long became painfully apparent - rumour had it the staff weren't treated very well. And if you ordered a book you would never ever receive it! All interest in promoting local authors seemed to fall by the wayside, even though their books might be doing well in rival bookshops.

Finally the closing scenes above on Tuesday where everything was discounted by 90% and even the fittings were for sale. An obscenely cheerful woman (the liquidator?) urged customers over the intercom to 'buy as many books as possible so that we can all go home' However biographies of Nicole Kidman and Michael Douglas alongside the dregs of the chic lit section did not appeal, even for 10% of cost price. The security guard stepped forward as if to stop me taking pictures, then shrugged as if to say 'What's the point?' Erotica was the last section to be discounted by 90%.

However for all its shortcomings, such as encouraging a more supermarket-approach to book buying, I shall miss Borders as a hang-out place, even if I was seldom inspired to buy very much for various reasons. It was a good idea which should have worked and did at first, so something went badly awry.

Last Christmas Woolworths and Zavvi, this Christmas Borders - what next to disappear from our High Streets?


Rol said...

I could have used those shelves.

Happy Christmas, Laura.

Owen said...

So that's the end of Borders in the UK ? Too bad they went downhill, sounds like they might've done better if they'd have listened to people like you...

The wheels are turning...

Wishing you happy holidays, and guess you'll just have to find a local pub that'll be willing to do an open mic poetry night ?

Happy 2010 !

Steve said...

erotica beat Michael Douglas's biography...? Guess his time in therapy worked then! Merry Christmas, Laura!

Steerforth said...

From what I've heard, Borders was ruined by the UK management, particularly the appropriately named MD, Philip Downer. However, they also entered the UK market too late in the day (only five years before broadband saw internet shopping really take off)and moving into high rent city centre sites rather than just sticking to low rent out of town ones.

teeni said...

These are the things that help make us feel old. In a few years, we will try to tell stories about hanging out in Borders (or some other franchise) to our grandchildren or nieces and nephews and they will inevitably ask, "What is a Borders?" ;)

Donnw/2nz said...

I don't know HOW these types of stores are supposed to make money?
We have plenty of them but most of the "good" books are obscenely expensive. I do so much reading out here that I barely have time to read an actual book...although the kids gave me a lovely thick Nat Geo book of everything that will sit beside the puter as a reference guide.

I hope that you are having a nice relaxing holiday season.

Nota Bene said...

I can't say why...I don't know, but I was never much of a Borders not so sad to see it go, but concerned at what may take its place....

KAZ said...

Let's hope Waterstone's stays strong and doesn't change any more.

garfer said...

Killed by Amazon and Tesco.

As for Basterstones, they've become a Branch of Costa Coffee with tables full of 3 for 2 offers and a prominent display of the 'Ant and Dec Story'.

I fear that we have only ourselves to blame.

Happy New Year (almost).

Dan said...

"alongside the dregs of the chick lit section"...

Just when I thought it couldn't be sadder. The photo was heartbreaking!

V funny comment Steve - and Steerforth, as for it being a mistake that Borders moved into city centres - well, it was good while it lasted, and it provided a great social meeting place.

Perhaps the whole business model was intentionally philanthropic?

For me, aside from it being a social hub, it was so great because I could look at all the hugely expensive niche art and fashion magazines and constantly marvel how, store aside, THESE TITLES could survive as business "models", seemingly only created for the lobbies of trendier-than-thou ad agencies...

When bookshops all close and we rue the demise of Primark, then we really should start to worry.

Dan said...

By the way, even with (actually, BECAUSE of) the camera shake, the image you got of the "dead man waking" security guard with the empty stock really is good enough to have been published. I can see it now in G2...

Wisewebwoman said...

I want me those shelves, Laura, the books are creeping like vines on every surface in my house!
Saddened to read of ANY bookstore closing but Borders, h'm. I hate those of my clients was a small book store and those monsters ate them up, too much publisher influence, et.
Happy New Year, dear Laura.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Rol, well I guess there were chucking them out in your neck of the woods too when your local branch closed.

Owen - thanks, we did manage to find an alternative poetry OM venue in the end. But the fate of Borders still saddens me.

Steve, no I didn't avail myself of any erotica either. Victorian porn is quite amusing, but not the modern stuff - that is just soulless and depressing.

Steerforth, you could well be right. Doubtless that's why Borders sold it off to the Brits to finish the job of ruining it. However I don't agree that it would have fared better out of town when its whole original premise was about involving the community and encouraging as many people as possible through its doors. The Coventry one was actually out-of-town and never did very well as a bookshop is not the sort of place people expect to find out-of-town and next to the Tesco superstore they have actually come for.

Teeni, luckily my family is set to die out with no younger members so I won't have to worry about trying to recall the halcyon days of various stores and facilities we used to have. Nice thought though.

Donn, I think the business model was to get as many people through the door as possible and presume that if they didn't want a book, they'd be bound to need a magazine or a greetings card or a cup of coffee or come to see an event. Should have worked really.

Nota Bene, well that's the worry really. What will take its place? A dress shop is rumoured for Oxford (as if there weren't enough already!)

Kaz, Waterstone's is infinitely duller than Blackwells, but for all its faults, I cannot wish its failure.

Garfer, As I said to Kaz above. What I hate about Waterstones particularly is the number of tables piled high with the SAME few titles, according to how much product placement the publisher can afford The coffee shop in Oxford is fairly small and discreetly tucked away on the 3rd floor. They could give the Ant & Dec story out free and this punter wouldn't be tempted though!

Dan, well now Borders (and doubtless many of those pretentious art and lifestyle mags you enjoyed but never bought) have folded - I blame you! ;-) Thanks for the compliments re the image. The camera wobble was probably because he was starting to approach me to stop me taking photos!

WWW - sorry to hear of the fate of your small book store - I guess that is an occupational risk in a smaller city not able to support as many book stores. Oxford however is teeming with humanity at any time of the day or night, so it is definitely the store which gets it wrong if it fails.

The Sagittarian said...

wow, I guess our own Borders have a limited shelflife too then!!!