Thursday, August 11, 2011
Although most people remember Borders as a big-box suburban store, to me it was always a big-box chain awkwardly appended onto a really nifty, quirky store on State Street in Ann Arbor.
It’s hard to remember now, and young folks now have no memory of this at all, but there was once a time when academic and/or small press books were hard to find. That was especially true if you didn’t live in or near a huge city. Back then, bookstore choices were limited to small mall chains -- Waldenbooks, anyone? B. Dalton? -- or very tiny independent bookstores with charm but without inventory.
The original Borders combined Midwestern earnestness with then-ambitious inventory with a sense of place. The model may be hackneyed now, but twenty years ago, it was really something. (For those who spent time in Ann Arbor, you’ll get the reference: it was the Schoolkids’ Records of bookstores. Anyone remember records? God, I’m old...) And for years, the arrival of a new Borders store in a culturally bereft area was a Very Big Deal.
Borders defined itself as a relatively affordable luxury. It never really discounted much, which, in retrospect, was a colossal mistake. Part of the reason that people hung out there was that they couldn’t afford to actually buy very much. It even charged full price for CD’s, which nearly nobody did by the mid 90’s. But in the original context, its costliness at least gave it an aspirational feel.
I was never entirely convinced by the superstore version of Borders. It kept the full-price policy, and the selection was still usually quite good, but quirkiness doesn’t scale easily. In growing, it washed out a bit. It became interchangeable, sacrificing some of that sense of place. And of course, Amazon came along and ate its lunch. After a while, I started using Borders as a sort of Amazon showroom; I’d check out the books in the store, then order the appealing ones from Amazon for a lot less money. An interesting new hardcover that went for 26 bucks at Borders would go for 14 on Amazon, and the ‘discovery’ function that the store offered was hard to monetize. (Best Buy is falling into the same trap now.) Barnes and Noble faces many of the same issues, but at least its Nook is a hit; Borders never figured out how to make the internet work in its favor.
Josh Kim did a nice piece a couple of weeks ago on the lessons of Borders for higher ed, and I think he got it right; in getting big without getting distinctive (or, I’d add, cheap), Borders lost its niche. In an era of rapidly expanding options, being merely okay at a whole bunch of things is a losing strategy. It’s entirely too easy for someone who wants a specific thing to comparison shop. Mediocrity isn’t redeemed by volume anymore, since supplies aren’t scarce anymore. At this point, you need to decide where to excel, and then do that.
By analogy, I suspect that the colleges in the most trouble in the next few years are the expensive-but-nothing-special privates. They lack the distinction to justify their prices. Publics can use price as a lure, and the better publics offer the prospect of high quality at a relatively low price; there’s always a market for that. The elites can sell exclusivity, and demographically specific institutions (I’m thinking of a place like BYU) can sell identity. But the smallish, nonelite, fairly expensive private colleges out there look a little like Borders, circa 2005. They were able to survive when competition was limited, but that’s not the case anymore; even far-flung areas now have access to a growing panoply of distance ed options.
As those places fade away, we’ll lose something. A college that’s “meh” overall will still have some terrific people in it, and they’ll lose their jobs along with everyone else. And the death spirals won’t be pretty. But the environment has changed, and a survival strategy that made sense a few decades ago just doesn’t cut it now. Borders was small in the 80’s, big in the 90’s, huge in the early 00’s, and dead in 2011. We who don’t want our colleges to follow a similar path need to learn the lesson. I miss Borders, but I read just as much without it.
I hope that the smallish, non-elite private don't go the way of Borders. I've been hearing that for years. I think they will need to look at price to stay competitive but for those of us who despise being part of the collective at Public U and don't want the rules/identity offered by places like BYU or Liberty and know better than to trust the for-profit there is a place for the small, private college.
One of my favorite Ugrad memories from small, SLAC was in early brit lit and having a medieval dinner at the prof's house. We all made dishes from that time period. All 24 of us. It was great. We then recited the prologue to Canterbury Tales in middle english and "tasted" mead. I don't know that all of that would be able to happen at giant Public U.
There is a certain niche that continues to be filled by SLACs, but many very successful small regional SLACs with a good deal of geographical sense to their mission (high quality but not too far from home, solid regional networking after college) feel like they need to grow and become national players. That has worked for Davidson, but it has failed for many others, and it is this model--a loss of the uniqueness of that niche and exposure as just another place offering expensive education (and usually in a boring, out-of-the-way, rural location) with a sudden loss of the closeness to students mentioned by Anonymous at 5:30 am--that may (and probably should) spell the doom of such institutions.
I'm also going to miss them. I'm also going to miss books.
I doubt that Barnes and Noble has a bright future. Yesterday I downloaded three titles from iBooks. They were in the public domain, so I opted for the free versions. Hard to compete with that.
Besides the fact that pizza cannot be delivered over the internet, even Dominos original stores limited seating to paying customers while newer ones have no unproductive space at all. There is also the non-trivial difference between selling your company to Kmart (Borders) and selling it to Bain Capital (Dominos). There could be lessons there, also.
My point is that you have to decide if education is something best served fresh, with a human touch, or impersonally in the form of anonymous bits served up from Anywhere, World. Anonymous @ 6:02 makes a similar point.
Students routinely say that they don't prefer on-line classes. They are an option of last resort. Will technology reduce those barriers via something like Skype? Have you ever seen a video conference with 30 individuals at 30 different places? How about 60 or 80 individuals, for that valued productivity increase?
I've only seen electronic classrooms work when there were just two of them, each with a substantial number of students and only a few screens to keep track of.
Unlike Borders, grocery stores don't offer a seating area where you can eat dinner without buying their product. But grocery stores often offer a taste for free. Amazon offers a free taste of books you might hear about, and that feature of the Kindle is a very effective marketing tool. Are there better ways to engage customers at your college?
To be honest, I find bookstores a bit disorienting now, which is odd considering how often I used to do the rounds of them in Cambridge. Whenever I drop into one, I feel lost, unsure of where to look and what to look for. Online, I often hear of a topic, an author or a title and can quickly follow up and buy, and usually everything is available.
I think Glenn McDonald put it very well in his The War Against Silence essay:
"Nothing makes me feel older, at the moment, and I include imminent parenthood in that "nothing", than buying CDs. The physical ritual of music-buying is obsolete and irrevivable, held over only briefly for the sake of some isolated nostalgia and small contingencies of storage capacity. I bought fewer CDs than ever, this year, and downloaded more music in files. All the record stores are gone from here but one, and my trips there feel like vastly muted versions of good days with a dying friend. I know that files are better, and that information is no less true to itself without plastic, but you don't love your friends for their white-cell counts, or miss them less on the days when you weren't going to see them anyway. It will hurt me to give up holding records in my hand, not because the physical objects themselves have important inherent virtues, but because it has just always been possible to hold them."