The Borders Issue

Friday, January 24, 2003

Okay, so I’m not a professor in Austo-Borders Relations, but I think it worthwhile to try and answer to Coté’s thoughts about the Borders protest Tuesday afternoon. A story:

Borders opens their store. They offer some slightly better deals on popular titles and have some sort of promotional for the first month, offering 25% of everything in the store or what have you. They also have a big, catchy sign that has a funky Austin “flare” to it, and run big ads in the Statesman and on TV. This is great for consumers! I can get the new Danielle Steele hardback nice and cheap, Coté grabs a couple new books about Java. They have a nice coffeeshop inside along with an atrium and a nice outdoor patio I can sit at while I look through my new purchases. Awesome.

So bunches of people go to Borders this first month, curious about the place and looking to exploit the good deals. Some like it. BookPeople is kind of old and dull. It doesn’t have the same sparkle as Borders. So Borders picks up a steady stream of customers. These aren’t snooty liberals like myself, just the honest ordinary readers, and Borders does alright by them.

So Borders pulls in a decent crowd — and so, really, does BookPeople. They both seem to still offer good prices and neither seems vacant. Fine.

But now BookPeople is loosing money. They both are, actually, but The Borders Group can afford the loss. In fact, it’s built into their business model for new stores. When opening a store, they expect no profits for, say, eighteen months. During this time, the 1,300 other Borders stores and their online presence make up more than enough of the loss. BookPeople, on the other hand, cannot survive this competition. Loosing cash for eighteen months means they can’t make good on their lease and they eventually have to relocate to a cheaper location. South Congress, or something. In a smaller building. Offering fewer books. Truly substandard in relation to the Borders.

So Borders tried really hard to cater to Austin. They offered the deals. They did some support of local authors. They even brought in some interesting names to talk about books. And they have that lovely atrium!

But now they don’t need to compete quite so hard. It’s 2005. Besides the campus Barnes & Noble, they’re the only large bookselling near downtown Austin. They have a luxury position. Their prices are a bit higher than the remaining indies — higher than at the BookPeople that’s now on south Congress — but that’s okay. They’ve got a beautiful place and a great selection, you’d expect stuff to be a tad expensive. Besides, you’re not really paying attention anymore, since your only real options are Borders and Barnes & Noble, and high or low, their prices are about the same. Nothing else really registers in your mind. $30 for a hardback is just what they cost. No thinking about it.

Something else is happening, though, that you don’t really notice. They stopped bringing in real exciting authors or speakers and the books are kind of lame. Maybe 2005 is just a crappy year for literature. You don’t really see many locals and the “New Fiction” shelves are covered in stuff that doesn’t really do much for you. Some books that got turned into big movies are displayed, and some books that look like they might be turned into movies soon. Everything’s sort of distant and vague. But the lighting is really nice, you have to admit, and they do have that awesome atrium. And they’re right downtown. It’s a good place to shop.

It’s too bad the mid-00s suck for writers just like the late-90s sucked for popular music. We know that the inabilities of good bands to break into the mainstream had nothing to do with the hegemonic control over radio by a handful of corporations allowed by broadcasting deregulations.

So, anyway. Enough of that. This is my story of what happens when Borders comes to town. They will cause BookPeople to fold and will create a sort of happy sensory-deprivation. You will love them for a while, but then once the competition is gone, they’ll sink back into the most profitable mold — which these days seems to working with other media companies to create as much of a blackout as possible, except for the few products they are interested in promoting. Notice how major media sucks these days? That’s why. The consumer doesn’t know what they’re missing, but they’re getting what’s offered at a cheaper rate (they think). And that’s what Borders will help do to our city.