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Economics

The End of Borders and the Future of Books

Borders seems to have been in the business of making mistakes

In September, just days before Borders Group met its end, one of the chain’s last retail holdouts, in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, Tenn., was being liquidated, with prices slashed by 90 percent. It was difficult in the stark surroundings not to think of a battle waged and lost, of the armies of Kindle owners and e-book peddlars off celebrating victory while all around lay the carnage—two copies of a Paul Reiser memoir, the suspect Greg Mortensen book Stones into Schools, a still-brimming manga section. A couple of professional scavengers picked over the DVDs, cataloging them with their own scanners. Empty shelves were being stacked in the store’s growing hollows and themselves tagged with prices ranging from $25 to $50. The defeat felt so stunning because it seemed so nearly complete, not just for Borders but also for bookselling in general. A two-story Borders in Nashville proper, about 10 miles north, had shut its doors four months earlier. In November 2010, a 30,000-square-foot outlet of a bookstore chain called Davis-Kidd Booksellers, in business in the city for 30 years, had closed as well. With the shuttering of the Brentwood Borders, there wasn’t a store within 22 miles of Nashville that specialized in new books.

Nashville might seem like an archetype of the death-of-the-bookstore-everywhere narrative, but its story turns out to be different. The cashier who checked me out at the Brentwood store, Nancy DeVille, had transferred from the Nashville location when it closed, and she said both outlets were constantly packed with regulars drawn to the sight, feel, and smell of books. David Beddow, a supervisor at the Nashville store from 2005 to 2008, remembered costumed crowds snaking around the corner for the release of the latest Harry Potter. He said revenue there had actually increased during his tenure, from $5.5 million to around $7 million a year.