Sunday, July 31, 2011

Turning the Page

You’ve got mail.

The iconic AOL tagline was also the title for the 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle, which failed to match the popular and critical success of their prior collaboration, Sleepless in Seattle (1993). The film dealt with the struggles of a small children’s bookstore confronted by a mega-chain, which usurped business through lower prices. The film was effectively a morality tale about the evils of “big business” and its adverse effect on “the little guy.” Technology, in the form of the then surging AOL e-mail service, played a role in the film, symbolizing the inevitable change that ultimately doomed the local bookstore. Despite a lukewarm ending necessary for box office success (the film was marketed as a romantic comedy) the message was clear: times are changing, and the wave of the new will sweep away the familiar.

Fast forward thirteen years: last week Borders, one of the largest bookstore chains in the United States, announced the imminent closing of all stores. Borders opened its first store in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1971, and over the next forty years grew into the type of mega-chain vilified by the film. Ironically, the cause of the chain’s demise was the very evolution and technology credited for the rise of the mega-chain in the 1990’s.

The public’s widespread access to, and use of, the internet as vehicle of purchase, coupled with the rise of Amazon, has forever changed the way books are sold. The ease of Amazon’s one-stop shopping has made the traditional trip to the bookstore all but obsolete. Moreover, the recent rise of e-books (again led by Amazon with Kindle) threatens to make traditional book publishing (and consequently traditional book selling) a thing of the past.

Barnes and Noble, Borders’ principal competitor until Amazon came along, has made significant strides in adapting to the realities of the new book selling world. B&N jazzed up its on-line bookstore, contracted with Starbucks to open coffee houses within its stores, established relationships with universities (college bookstores are one of the few remaining links to the book selling past – although this also is changing) and even developed its own e-reader, NOOK, to compete with Amazon’s Kindle. Despite its efforts, B&N’s profits are significantly down, and it remains to be seen whether it can successfully navigate the waters of the new book market. Still, while Borders’ stores are holding closeout sales, B&N’s operations continue uninterrupted.

Borders failed because it was slow to react to the changes in book selling technology. Its efforts to modernize lagged well behind B&N’s, thereby cementing its fate as the first of the mega-chains to fall.

I have very fond memories of Borders. During my children’s early years, our local Borders store became a frequent weekend destination. We would arrive as a family and quickly scatter, my kids scurrying to the children’s section, while my wife and I traversed the literature and mystery stacks. My kids learned about such authors as Dr. Seuss at Borders, which helped develop their appreciation for the written word.

Over the years my own approach to books and book purchasing has changed. I am a frequent visitor to, and my Kindle has become a favorite traveling companion when business takes me on the road. Still, whenever I visit a new city, I like to wander through the stacks at the local Borders or B&N, comparing the items on display to those featured at Miami locations. This helps me better understand the culture and, consequently, the people of the city.

The failure of Borders may mark the beginning of the end of book selling as we once knew it. Ironically, the sole surviving traditional bookstores may be local, specialized shops which develop community presence and local following through support of local authors and book signings.

I will miss my Sundays at the bookstore, even as I order the latest releases for immediate delivery with the touch of a button on my Kindle. Our evolving technology makes book buying much easier, but it will never truly replace, nor even approach, the smell of musty stacks, the breaking of the binding, or the anticipation that accompanies the turning of a page as we dive headlong into the world of the written.

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