Friday, July 22, 2011

No Borders

NRO's Rich Lowry has a nice piece about the meaning of the end of Borders, the national bookstore that you soon used to find in nearly every mall in the country.

For Lowry, Borders' story is the story of free-enterprise:
Nostalgia aside, the extinction of Borders is the very model of a free-market economy at work. The store fell victim to the unyielding injunction of a truly creative economy: “Adapt, or die.” It failed to keep up with evolving technology and shifting consumer preferences, and so has been forced to make way for more adept competitors.

This ruthlessly efficient reallocation of resources took place because Borders wasn’t big or politically connected enough to get a bailout; because its employees didn’t belong to a powerful union favored by the White House; and because it didn’t sell something, such as green energy, deemed worthy of taxpayer support. The upshot of the changes that buried the store, and were allowed to unspool without governmental interference, will be cheaper and more readily available books.

The story of Borders has been repeated again and again by all the countless American companies that have risen to prominence only to disappear. It started with an inspired innovation only to be overtaken by subsequent innovations. It had an advantage that, in new conditions, became a liability. It lost its footing on the free market’s ceaseless wheel of change.
I agree with all of that, although one of the reasons I stopped patronizing Borders (Barnes & Noble too) was that the delicious aroma of books, new and old, could never quite overcome the unmistakable odor of left-wing politics that always lingered in the air.  One would have thought that the same people who keep NPR alive could have managed a government subsidy or two. 

Anyway, with the news of Borders demise, I have a few predictions about the future of books and bookstores:

1.  Borders' loss will not be Barnes & Noble's gain.  B&N will go the way of the dinosaur as well.

2.  The death of the big bookstore will, ironically, mean the rebirth of the small, local shop, you know, the one "around the corner" that couldn't compete 15-20 years ago.  For most serious readers, there remains something irreducibly tactile about the practice.  They want to hold the book, turn its pages, read a few passages, etc., before they buy it.  Moreover, bibliophiles love little more than to roam leisurely through the stacks, hoping always to be pleasantly surprised by some unexpected title.  The market for that will be small, to be sure, but large enough to make the small shop profitable.

3.  Books will more and more have to succeed on their own merit.  That is, the substance of the book will matter more, and the marketing of it less.  Cover design and shelf placement won't decide whether a book sells or not.  Good, but otherwise obscure writers will have more of a chance to break out.


No comments:

Post a Comment