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?