Thursday, August 11, 2011


I’ll miss Borders.

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.