There have already been a wave of stories dissecting and analyzing the company's death, many of them wrong, but a few of them right on the nose. I don't think I have much to add to them, so I'm not going to linger on the subject. Instead, I just want to write down for myself what I personally learned from my time in a dying company.
One of the biggest problems in our store was a GM who rarely stepped out of his office. In the two years that I worked at my old store, my boss spoke at most 200 words to me. Early on I tried to engage him, but was only greeted with a sort of detached vacancy, so I soon gave up. Instead, our GM would pass the task of managing employees to his assistant managers, the first couple of whom were genuinely good at the job, so it worked out well enough. But as our more talented, capable assistant managers moved on to other, better things, we inevitably ended up with one who wasn't much better at dealing with people than the GM, and the situation began to collapse. The workers no longer felt that anybody had their interests in mind, resentments began to fester, and any connection we felt to our employers -- the company, our store, our specific management -- died a slow, tortured death.
The question ultimately boiled down to this: if management doesn't care about the booksellers, why would the booksellers care about the store? Our GM took very little pride or interest in us, and ultimately we ceased to take any pride or interest in operating his business. That could've been prevented by simple interaction -- our GM emerging from his office not as management but as a co-worker, taking some time to know us as workers rather than as cogs, engaging us as people in the same way that he wanted us to engage with customers. Employees will give back what they get. And if you give them nothing, you can't expect them to give you back anything of value.
2. Information is specific, and can't be sold as an interchangeable commodity.
One of the biggest lessons of the Borders debacle: books aren't detergent, and you can't sell them the same way. There's an excellent argument to be made that Borders really began its downward spiral when grocery store executives took the reins. Without getting too analytical about it (because that's been done better elsewhere), at some point during the 90s the foundational strategy at Borders began to shift from selling books as individual items to selling books as a commodity. On a purely intellectual level, this makes some sense: buying and selling many different books in small quantities is expensive; buying and selling just a few books in huge quantities is far more profitable. And it works well with certain categories of consumer goods, where every brand of laundry detergent is more or less the same. But books are highly individual items, and any given book can be wildly different from any other given book. This is obvious, right?
And yet Borders seemingly lost sight of that simple truth. The pinnacle of this misguided strategy came in the form of the MAKE book program -- Borders would select one or a few specific books, and booksellers were expected to hard-sell those titles to literally every single customer who walked through the doors. The idea, presumably, was to bulk-sell as many of those few titles as possible, which, as I said, made a certain kind of intellectual sense, if books could indeed be sold as a commodity.
But as a bookseller, the absurdity and futility -- and frankly, the self-destructiveness -- of this strategy was obvious from the start. One month we were made to sell a book about a woman with breast cancer to everyone, including the young men coming in for the new Chuck Palahniuk novel; the next month we were pitching a book about, essentially, cowboy soldiers in Iraq to middle-aged ladies buying romance novels. In one particularly frustrating example, we were selling a genuinely good book, but it was the newly-released hardcover sequel to an equally good novel that was already in paperback. Even if we managed to get a customer interested, how were we to sell that when the first book in the series was already there, and cheaper as well? Which illustrates that even very similar books -- same author, same characters, same narrative line -- aren't interchangeable. You can never sell any individual book to everyone, or even to most. And ironically, the books that you could sell to the most people almost by definition do not need to be actively pitched.
With a commodity -- laundry detergent, let's say -- one is almost as good as another, and selling strategies may well sway a customer away from one brand and toward another. And if a customer isn't coming in for detergent today, they probably will sooner or later, and a pitch made now may well result in a sale at some point in the future. But when a person is buying information, they are most often looking for something quite specific, and efforts to sell them an alternative are almost always pointless. Even if an information buyer is relatively open or unsure exactly what they want, a few questions will almost always reveal that even their openness is restricted to a relatively narrow field. The key to selling this kind of product is not to pitch what you want them to buy, but to determine what it is they want and then find a way to make it available to them.
3. When things are changing, it's better to run toward change headlong than to hide from it.
This lesson, I think, is the one most urgently related to LIS. Even in my short time in the library world, I have seen a clear tendency to avoid the onrush of technological change, or to find ways to force new and different technologies fit into old paradigms. There are a thousand ways in which technology impacts libraries, and every single one of them requires specific adaptation and change, which is always going to bring a certain amount of uncertainty and discomfort. But avoiding those changes and continuing on with business as usual is a quick and reliable path toward eventual failure. And Borders was a prime example of this.
I remember around 2003, shopping for books on the Internet, deciding to check the Borders website for a price. I also remember my surprise when Borders essentially redirected to Amazon.com for ordering purposes. Even at the time, I wondered, "what's the point of sending me back to your competition to make my purchase?" It seems so obviously foolhardy in retrospect, and an excellent case can be made that failing to set up its own dedicated web presence for buying as well as browsing was one of the original nails in the lid of Borders' coffin. It's even more laughable because by 2003, it was perfectly obvious that the Internet was become a major, even primary force in commerce, to be ignored at a company's peril.
The same dynamic appeared again and again over the years, in many ways. As iPods and mp3 players became everyday items, I remember customers coming in on a weekly basis asking if we had a kiosk for buying and downloading tracks, or even if we simply sold iTunes gift cards (we did neither.) Borders' response was to essentially consolidate its music department, reduce diversity and selection, and focus on titles that were mostly appealing to older, less technologically-savvy consumers. In effect, rather than keep up with the times, they limited themselves to a smaller and ever-dwindling subset of buyers. And when e-readers finally began to enter the market as a viable alternative to paper books, Amazon sat on its hands for a crucial few years while Amazon and Barnes and Noble ran away with the market, only to join the game a day late and a dollar short with a small mob of unfamiliar, lower-rated devices that the buying public was not, for the most part, interested in.
I would say that of all the mistakes made during Borders' slow decline, the habit of looking the other way while change inexorably happened all around was the biggest factor in dooming the company. It may have been -- as it may yet turn out to be for B&N -- that there's simply no place for big-box book retail in the future, and that the company was going to die sooner or later regardless. But I really believe that the answer to these changes is not to run away from them, but to embrace them as an opportunity to be met and a way to meet our objectives more easily and successfully.
From the librarian's perspective, at the very least I know that our patrons will be living in that world, and that if we want to have any hope of reaching them, we need to be there with them. I'm proud of my city's own library system for being so strongly pro-active, with a truly impressive, comprehensive online presence, and even an awesome new iPhone app that gives me access to my library everywhere I go. And since the library is always in my pocket, I use my library a lot. There are still issues and problems to be worked out, but I know that the Multnomah County Library is sparing no effort at keeping up and trying to solve those problems with the needs of its patrons in mind. And so I know that even as society changes, this library will flourish and remain a central pillar in Portland life. And I'll remember that every time I walk past the empty shell where my old Borders store used to be.