Borders: Australia, the US, and the heyday of the super-cinema

Two new stories today on the continuing dismemberment of the old Borders empire.

First up, confirmation that none of the Australian superstores has found purchasers, and that the rump of nine will all be closed by the end of July.  (In New Zealand, 57 Whitcoulls and five Borders stores have been acquired by a large, family-controlled retail group, though how many will continue as bookshops is unclear.)

Secondly, private-equity firm Gores Group has indicated an interest in 200 (about half) of the remaining US Borders superstore estate; Gores has extensive interests across the entertainment sector and beyond, though their plans for those stores aren’t clear.  If this, or a similar, deal were to go through, it’s difficult to imagine the remaining Borders stores looking very attractive to any industry buyer.

It’s now a year and a half since Borders closed in the UK, and some of the wounds are starting to heal – all but one of the stores is now tenanted, or back in landlords’ hands for re-letting.  In the course of those 18 months, the bookselling eco-system has changed beyond recognition, with – for instance – Pan Macmillan (the UK’s fifth largest trade  publishing group) announcing that 8% of its Q1 trade sales value came from e-books, a market that is growing exponentially each quarter.  (And, here in the UK, we still haven’t had our first Kindle Summer.)  Throughout the interminable process of HMV selling Waterstone’s, there was no suggestion (confirmed or otherwise) that any established retail group had any interest in one of Britain’s favourite retail brands.

This pace of change is such that, already, it becomes difficult to conceive of a world – still viable through the early 2000s – where book superstores were a rational part of the bookselling infrastructure.  Few sectors are seeing so much change, so quickly, driven primarily by a fundamental technological change.

Here’s a parallel: up until the outbreak of war, super-cinemas were being rolled out across the UK in ever more grandiose buildings.  Here’s the Odeon in Bradford, which opened in December 1938 with 2,713 seats.

The architecture is splendid, of course.

When Bradford Odeon opened, the BBC had been broadcasting its television service for two years, but TV was a minority gimmick for the very-well off, and only a few thousand sets were in use.

The war ended new cinema building, and closed down the TV service, which gave the cinema chains an extended lease of life.  Had there been no Hitler, and no war, and had the economy continued to recover from the slump, with technical development concentrated on consumer goods, rather than radar and atom bombs, it’s easy to conceive that television would have been a mainstream product by the mid-1940s.  Bradford Odeon’s heyday was brief, and though it fared better than many cinemas (it was still profitable into the early 1960s), it was demolished in 1969.

Oscar Deutsch and his backers could never have conceived that their super-cinemas could have lasted for so short a time, but a fundamental technology shift (actually delayed for 10 years by a world war) changed everything.

Back in the bookshops, Barnes & Noble (quietly reducing the size of its store portfolio) is targeting the holy grail of an intertwined physical shops/online fulfilment/digital sales model.  If anyone can make this work, B&N can – with an established website and a strong alternative e-reader in the Nook; but is ownership of hundreds of bricks and mortar stores the starting point they’d choose today?  And in the UK, James Daunt is being wooed by the press and sizing up Waterstone’s before taking over the chain at the start of next month.

More changes to follow.  Mind you – cinemas have altered beyond recognition, but they haven’t gone away…

Odeon facts and photo from Colin Sutton’s Bradford cinemas website,  

Borders photo from