Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The end of an era in book selling

Today marks the end of an era when Borders stores will close their doors, to the public at least, for the last time. Despite several contenders, including Richard Joseph who with his father Philip, founded Books Etc, none of the bids have been successful.

Borders, which to the outsider who knows little about the book trade, had such potential, first came to the UK in 1997, as an offshoot of an American chain. Out of all the significant book chains trading in the UK, they have had by far the most turbulent history, changing hands twice in the last two years alone. 2009 has been by far the most eventful of their 12 years in the UK, with the closure of their flagship Oxford Street store and other stores across the country, including most of their airport ones, plus of course the much talked about management buy out, which has
no doubt left Philip Downer licking his wounds (not as much I suspect as his staff).

Downer was in fact Borders first British based employee, and he will also ironically now be their last, as the remaining staff are made redundant on Christmas Eve. He had such hopes for the business speaking at the company's annual conference just a few short months ago, a big expansion programme, new stock lines, and a bigger and better website to name just three, but none of these plans will now see fruition.

Speaking earlier this year, Downer stated "I genuinely believe we have got a unique retail proposition" - but it is difficult to see what this was. The company was faced with heavy competition - and aggressive discounting from Waterstones, supermarkets and the Internet, and simply could not compete. Out of town stores and heavy exposure to the Icelandic banks didn't help much either.

One of their biggest problems I always felt was connected to their distribution - namely, that everything was centralised (although that did change during the final year of business - maybe too late), with everything revolving around a central distribution hub in Cornwall. Books were trucked up and down the M5 to all parts of the country, with books from the average London publisher sent from London to Cornwall and then halfway round the country again to the stores which had requested copies. This I always felt, like the supermarket model, was pure insanity and suicidal for the small presses and small publishers, who did not get a look in, as they were unable to supply direct to their local stores. I speak from experience here.

When the hub close din the autumn of 2007, I hoped that it might herald a change and make things easier for the smaller publishers, but in reality nothing changed. I hoped that individual store Managers as with Waterstones, may have a say as to what was stocked in their stores, and be able to order books via wholesalers from the small presses and self publishers, but no, Head Office still maintained its icy grip. This is not of course the cause of their downfall, for many other factors were involved, but it certainly did not help, and was my personal biggest bug bear, as was the difficulty in extracting information about how to get them to take your work seriously so that you could be stocked. No one, but no one appeared to take the independent publisher seriously.

Borders came into the UK by buying Books Etc, which was run separately from Borders, yet part of the same group. Critics and company insiders claim that the initial success of Borders came at the expense of Books Etc, a claim which Downer has strongly denied. He did though concede that "Borders was the cuckoo in the nest", saying, "It was indulged, and then things were whipped away from it."

From 1997 onwards Books Etc slipped steadily down the agenda, with more and more stores closing until at the end, (they closed their doors at the weekend, ahead of their Borders cousins), only a handful remained. More than 50 staff braved the elements last night to hold a wake for Books Etc in London.

For the staff that remain, which came on Tuesday, confirming that today will be the final day of trading must have come as somewhat of a relief. There have been reports of customers wishing to buy any type of memorabilia they can get their hands on - chairs from the children's dept, coffee mugs from the staff room, and even the shirts that the staff wear as uniform. I can relate to what the anonymous book seller and author of the Borders Insider blog says over on The Bookseller that finally, in the midst of thousands of customers asking when they will close, they can give them an answer - safe in the knowledge that they are not enquiring as to the staff's future, but trying to ascertain how long they have in order to bag some more bargains. I suspect they have lost their chance, as when I visited the Kingston store last week, most of the books had already gone. I was lucky to get 20 percent off a calendar.

So, what will happen to the stores after they close - will some staff club together and buy the leases, as Simon and Tim did when Waterstones closed in Wood Green, or will they turn into just another cloned clothes or coffee shop, selling cheap tat that tastes awful and falls apart after a few washes? We can only wait and see.