The Borders bankruptcy has been a long time coming. It was well over a year ago when a Borders executive walked away from a conversation in which I asked, in a less-than-diplomatic way, about the long-term chances of the chain. So we’ve had plenty of time to go through the stages of grief, and also to modify our budgets and business plans, and to think about where we would sell our copies when the giant was gone.
All the preparation hasn’t made it easy. For many of my publisher clients Borders was the second biggest source of distribution and sales for their publications: a sturdy prop in a difficult time. Along with Barnes and Noble it represented a remaining place where a special interest publication could find a home and an audience, and where the cost of returns wouldn’t cripple the possibility of some positive revenue flow.
In fact, Borders’ demise is a surprise to no one—not even to my daughter’s college-age boyfriend who said he knew, when he heard (years ago) that someone from the chain had dismissed the e-reader as inconsequential, that this company wouldn’t last. “To deny new technology because it threatens your profits never works,” he said. “The new technology always wins. Always.”
Well said, Ben, and oh, so true. But from a magazine point of view I would never dismiss the chain as lacking in vision. I remember years ago when Borders was on the cutting edge of the magazine superstore concept. Waldenbooks, once a huge powerhouse of magazine distribution, was starting to wither away in its shopping mall locations, and little upstart Borders was becoming the robust hope of magazine publishers. When Walden was moved from Stamford, Connecticut to take its place under the wing of BGI in Ann Arbor it almost seemed like a case of the tail wagging the dog; but Borders grew and thrived and sheltered magazine publishers from the dwindling sales from Waldenbooks.
As we struggled for incremental magazine space in supermarkets and drugstores there was relief to be had in the miles of mainline in the Borders chain. I remember magazine buyer Bill Jourdan looking for independent comics and “’zines” to add to the magazine racks—who would even accept those products in those days? He wanted a true mix with lots of choice for his customers; he wanted to carry everything. More recently Carla Bayha met with publishers to customize “out of the box” promotions programs that would play to the strengths of their magazine line.
Consumer magazine publishers have gotten very used to the changes brought about by bankruptcies over the past couple of decades. The first ones I remember happened back in the 1980s when a big national distributor and a smaller direct distributor went out of business.
Ironically, the direct distributor had built its business around Waldenbooks, and the removal of that pin was what sent it under. Then Unimag, ANCO, and countless more of the little guys…
But, unlike WB Yeats after the 1916 Irish uprising, I’m not going to “murmur name upon name” of the fallen heroes of newsstand distribution. Now we have a new storm to buffet our tiny boats and one less safe haven to sail into. We’ve been through many bankruptcies, yes, and more might be pending. As a business we’ve learned not to let collections get too far out; we’ve learned how to regroup and re-strategize and re-forecast and respond. We’ll move forward; we’re moving forward now. And as we do, we take a moment to say goodbye to a once great chain.