An American Editor

February 16, 2011

The Demise of Borders, Blockbuster, and Choice

I admit that I’m not crying too hard over Borders’ troubles. I once worked for Borders Group (a lot of years ago) and even then I couldn’t figure out how it planned to survive. It has survived a lot longer than I expected.

I am crying a little bit harder over Blockbuster’s demise. My movie watching habits come and go in spurts, which is why I haven’t joined Netflix — why pay a monthly fee if I don’t regularly watch videos? And it is true that I have through Verizon’s FiOS video on demand, but I never use it. My current bill for Verizon landline telephone, Internet, and TV is already in heart attack country — the last thing I want to do is discover that I’ve added $30 or $40 (plus the fees and taxes) to an already outrageous bill.

But the demise of these two 20th-century behemoths got me thinking, especially when combined with the daily reports of another indie bookstore closing, another art gallery that didn’t make it, the lack of record stores, about how consumers are changing the cultural landscape.

You’ve heard me opine before about how I think the growth of the behemoths like Amazon are rally not good for consumers, and as each day passes, I become more convinced of the truth of that belief. I know that many of you, if not most, will talk up Amazon’s low prices, which is the short-term view to consumer well being. This short-term view is so pervasive that it extends from the consumer to our politicians who are deciding what budget cuts should be made to Wall Street’s emphasis on quarterly profits. Instant gratification with the least muss and fuss is the consumer-politician-Wall Street mantra.

Yet if we look objectively at the long term, we can see that we are only destroying the diversity and cultural norms that we say we value. When we oppose Walmart building a new store in our community because it pays low wages and its prices are so low that local stores can’t compete, we send a message that we value local businesses and community members. Yet we make that protest then shop at Amazon or the nearest Walmart because we value the low prices. The message and values are contradictory.

This is the problem with Borders’ demise. On some forums people are posting about how they miss browsing in their local bookstore, but then end their comment by stating that they never bought there — they would just browse, find what they wanted, and then order it online because it was cheaper. Then when the bookstore closed and the staff couldn’t find other jobs and began collecting unemployment, the complaint arose about how our taxes are and we should cut unemployment benefits.

It is a vicious cycle. We choose among our competing values and inevitably most of us choose cheap over any other value.

In my youth, many decades ago, we always bought locally. We knew the store owners and the employees — we went to the same schools as their children, to the same worship house, to the same cultural events, to the same social gatherings. Not today. Today, we rarely know the store owner or anything about him or her, let alone their family. And even if we do know the owner, we want to avoid paying sales tax and pay the lower price we can get from places like Amazon. The fact that Amazon simply takes our money from our community and never returns any of it doesn’t register — price is what registers.

In the brick-and-mortar retail world, Walmart has competition from Target and Costco and other discount retailers. But with the demise of, for example, Borders and indie bookstores (who would have thought that Powell’s, a bookworld icon, would need to lay off staff because of 2 years of losses?), competition in cultural venues is declining and local communities suffer — both culturally and financially. I find it distressing that young people will be within talking distance of one another yet prefer to communicate by texting or twittering. Or that their idea of a social gathering where they can interact with peers is an online game or Facebook.

Humans originally migrated to create clans, then villages, then cities, then nations, places where they could interact with other humans and develop what we euphemistically call civilization. We are beginning to see the cultural rollback to where each human stands alone in a world of their own. When we forsake local culture for price, we chip away at one of the pillars of civilization because those nonlocal places don’t give back any of what they take away.

The Internet age has its pluses, but it also has its minuses — minuses that we are only beginning to see and of which the demise of local, indie stores and outfits like Borders and Blockbuster that have a local presence are symptoms. The forsaking of choice for price as a value will come back to haunt us.

8 Comments »

  1. “The forsaking of choice for price as a value will come back to haunt us.”

    It already has.

    Like

    Comment by Carolyn — February 16, 2011 @ 7:40 am | Reply

  2. There’s more than lower prices going on here. I can’t tell how old you are, but people are not like the adults were when I was a kid in the 1960s. Look at Steve Jobs’ latest 30% greed grab. Had any company tried to pull that in the 1960s, our adult politicians would’ve sicced the FTC on Apple or maybe even held Congressional hearings. Instead, Apple is actually *defended* by the people who claim it’s “their” device — even though *they pay for it* and should be able to do any damn thing they please with it, as has been the case traditionally with any computer. They have no idea of what Restraint of Trade means. They’ve been indoctrinated into believing if you can screw people like that, it’s all good. Fair play and the greater good are alien notions to them. People have gotten flat-out weird, so it’s no wonder we tweet to one another instead of wanting to meet one another.

    Like

    Comment by mikecane — February 16, 2011 @ 9:07 am | Reply

    • Mike, I was in college in the 1960s so I know exactly what you are talking about. What amazes me is how Texas, which has a significant budget deficit, has decided to kowtow to Amazon and not demand that Amazon collect billions of dollars in sales tax. The stance of the Republican governor is that it is better to cut public services and close schools than to require Amazon to collect taxes.

      Like

      Comment by americaneditor — February 16, 2011 @ 9:55 am | Reply

  3. The Demise of Borders, Blockbuster, and Choice « An American Editor…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

    Like

    Trackback by World Spinner — February 16, 2011 @ 11:31 am | Reply

  4. What you/we are watching in the business world is not something new. It is more noticable in the retail end but it has been happening in all areas of business.

    If one reads some of the books on commercialism such as Braudels’ “Wheels of Commerce” and others, business has cycled between being done by small businesses and morphed into the big box stores and then, eventually, back to smaller businesses and that cycle seems to go in a 15 to 29 year span. For an example of a WalMart situation, Emile Zola’s “The Ladies Store” was a precursor to the WalMart syndrome.

    In the area of publishing, consolidation has been going on for years. It is not a case of many individual imprints, it is that a few publishers have many imprints . . . but the indie area is beginning to take hold.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the larger books stores, Powells, B & N and others don’t go into on-site POD for new books. Many years ago I had a client who worked for Xerox in the development of POD equipment. At that time he told me that they believe that’s the way all new books will be printed and the lack of having to carry inventory will offset the cost of the equipment.

    In that line, it would not surprise me is eBooks become a mainstay of small bookstores . . . and they will be doing it on-line as well and in their stores. Most likely they will pay for each copy they sell. However, they have their customer’s money at the same time instead of buying and then having to wait to sell their pBooks. With an increase in turnover, bookstores will not need the same markup as they do with pBooks.

    Some time ago, I believe it was in a World Press editorial, that the old business model in all aspects of the publishing business will no longer work. What is going on is proof of that. The pain of the change will not be eased by any one thing but over time it will find how it all works.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador of Selling, Attitudes for Selling

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    Comment by Alan J. Zell — February 16, 2011 @ 11:39 am | Reply

  5. I want the physical sensory experience of browsing for books over a cup of really good coffee. The people who predict the demise of the bookstore compare it to the fate of the video rental store. They think that readers will take to Kindle the way that movie fans took to Netflix. It won’t happen. Spending and enjoyable afternoon in a nice bookstore is about as close to dashing in and out of a Blockbuster as a day at the beach is to 15 minutes in a tanning booth. I will occasionally buy online … always have … but I will still want to spend time in the bookstore.

    — Judson

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    Comment by Judson — February 16, 2011 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

  6. […] The news that Borders filed for bankruptcy spurred all sorts of commentary: Smart Bitches, Dear Author, and An American Editor. […]

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    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity means that I can happily overindulge in exclamation points!! — February 18, 2011 @ 3:03 am | Reply

  7. Thank you so very much for this website, it’s been the most interesting read i’ve ever read in a really long time.

    Like

    Comment by Angela Kenny — August 6, 2011 @ 2:47 am | Reply


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