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Borders – end of empire

Pic: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg News

I started this morning a little lost for words.  Then the news came in from Australia:

REDGROUP Retail, the parent of Angus & Robertson and Borders, has collapsed amid a massive downturn in consumer discretionary spending.  The parent of the two leading bookstore chains in Australia was today placed into voluntary administration by Pacific Equity Partners, the private equity fund that has owned the business since 2004.

You can read more about the Asia Pacific business here:   http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/borders-angus-robertson-parent-redgroup-retail-in-voluntary-administration/story-e6frg8zx-1226007712326.

And the most straightforward news account I’ve read from the US is in the NYT, here:  http://mobile.nytimes.com/article?a=746057&single=1&f=23.

So, in the space of 15 months, all of the Borders businesses have tumbled.  What will happen to individual stores; to franchise stores in the Middle East; or to the brand itself, remains to be seen.

Borders was never as strong a business as Barnes & Noble or WH Smith.  Yes, it – we – over-expanded.  The strategy stuck at “build more stores and they will come” for too long, with a failure to solve long-standing systems problems (what had been state-of-the-art in the 1980s was tragically clunky by the 2000s); commitment to a time-bomb online strategy; and keeping too many under-performing or non-core stores trading for too long.  I suppose there is a book to be written about all of this.

But for all the errors of judgement, there are still plenty of us who believe – who know, dammit – that Borders stores brought a quality of inclusivity, a tone of relaxed authority, and a genuine, unjudgemental passion for books, music and movies to the communities they served.  (Many of them made a handsome profit too.)  The world has changed, and will change and change again.

As each book chain or record shop is picked off, the next one up the food chain becomes the weakest and most vulnerable on the market.  Your favourite news-source will pick over Borders for a few more days; the future of the extant US rump will become clear… and then the op-ed caravan will move on, illuminated by the righteous light of their iPads.

More about the future in future posts.

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