I visited Borders UK’s Glasgow store a few days ago, feeling like a vulture as I filled my basket with cut-price books (TimeOut travel guides, IT (Mac) user-guides and English language reference books. Plus two novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard for my daughter).To my surprise I found myself feeling sad and nostalgic at the store’s closing.
Yet I’ve never felt any particular attachment to Borders. When it first opened I saw echoes of the David-vs-Goliath tale You’ve Got Mail, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Small independent bookseller versus Big-Business Bookseller. Guess who wins.
I think it’s safe to say Borders put the city-centre branch of John Smith & Son (Glasgow) Ltd out of business. (John Smith & Son: Glasgow’s second oldest trading company and the oldest bookselling company in the English speaking world. It’s been around since 1751 and in spite of its city-centre closure is, apparently, thriving, focusing on university campus and legal information bookstores).
So from the outset I wasn’t well-disposed to Borders. That said, when I lived in Italy and book-shopped in Glasgow, I used to lug suitcases full of paperbacks, dictionaries and reference books back to Rome after each visit – first from John Smith’s, then from Borders. So I’ve been a frequent and loyal customer.
The death of any shop is a sad business (I’m speaking from experience, as we’ve recently had to close our chocolate shop. It’s like a bereavement). For people who love books, the death of a bookstore is particularly sad. And after the many business failures during these last two bruising years, the death of yet another well-known retail name is heart-breaking indeed.
I don’t know enough about the world of finance to understand just what machinations lay behind Borders’ demise, over and above the competition from Amazon. Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth, on why Borders didn’t make it.
Borders didn’t have the serendipitous feel of a small independent bookseller. It was a reasonably efficient book supermarket, but not enough so to compete with Amazon. You entered the store and could rely of finding more or less everything you were looking for. What you couldn’t find, you could order. The choice was plentiful – at times dizzyingly and excessively so.
Three-for-two tables, a coffee shop. But did it have to be Starbucks…?
And that horrible aisle of tat you had to run the gamut of to get to the tills – latterly lined not just with cheap little books but with cheap sweets, snacks and fizzy drinks – just too cynical to bear.
Book no doubt are a commodity, but they shouldn’t feel like one. Amazon treats books exactly like a commodity, and a commodity is what its customers expect. Amazon focuses on price, speed and convenience, regardless of product. You get what you pay for, no frills attached.
But physical bookstores aren’t convenience stores. They’re places where you go to browse, ponder, and discover the unexpected. That’s the quality Borders UK lost in recent years – a quality I’m not sure they ever really had.
So what’s going to happen now, in Glasgow at any rate? The Borders store occupies a prime Buchanan Street location. Argyle Street has been reduced to major chains plus pound shops. Sauchiehall Street isn’t worth talking about and bears scarcely a trace of its former glories (does anyone remember Pettigrew and Stephens, Copeland and Lye, Daly’s, Hendersons, Muirheads, Trerons?).
So here’s an idea. Waterstone’s should close its dismally located branches in both these depressing streets and take over the Borders store.
Glasgow could thus continue to have a prime retail space for books, while this reduced but more concentrated city-centre offering would – should – give a new lease of life to out-of-centre independent bookstores.
What do you think, booklovers and Glaswegians?
By Marian Dougan