Each week in On the Other Hand, Ben Bartlett defies the common wisdom and identifies the other side of the story of cultural hot-topic issues.

Look, can I take just a minute and NOT feel nostalgic for the demise of Borders bookstores?  It seems like everyone is rushing to eulogize this embarrassingly run-of-the-mill Barnes & Noble wannabe, and I just don’t get it.

I suppose the problem is that people are seeing a societal shift, the demise of the physical book, and an ugly situation in which formerly thriving stores become urban blight at the turn of a hat.  Fine.  I can get behind those discussions.  But can’t we discuss them without Borders?

Borders almost never had good deals.  Borders had perhaps the worst religion selection in the history of bookstores (in one incident especially fresh in my mind, I found 5 books suggesting the anti-Semitic bent of the Christian church but ZERO books by C.S. Lewis, John Stott, or John MacArthur).  The history section was middling at best.  The New Age section was bursting at the seams, as were various conspiracy theorists.  The classic fiction was lacking, as was the philosophy section.

Borders had nothing original to offer at any point in the 14 years that I was aware of it.  The staff was not knowledgable.  The food was fine, but several orders more expensive than the food courts that were within 15 seconds’ walk.  There was just nothing to recommend it.

I throw out all these complaints because our world, yes, is in a state of change… but some things never change.  A bad store is a bad store, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that out loud.  Our world is quicker than ever before at recognizing and appreciating quality products, but it also is more deadly than ever before to mediocre copycats.

Do your critical analysis, and have your philosophical arguments.  But at the end of the day, don’t forget to ask yourself whether an event truly is a result of a societal trend… or whether sometimes a bad idea just needs to die.


  1. I totally agree. Borders’ prices were insane, but only if you occassionally found something worth buying inside. I went to a store closing store yesterday, in hopes of finding some sweet deals. I was sorely disappointed. Even in their bankruptcy their prices are still crazy. They were selling books for way more than I could buy them on Kindle (and Kindle is still in business). Bad store, bad company, I’m glad to see another crappy store close.

  2. Of course, you are most likely referring to the Borders closest to you. I worked at a Borders (in the Cleveland suburbs) for a few years before grad school and the one I worked at had a magnificent religion section, better than the local Christian bookstore (which isn’t saying much, but you know). It also had a fantastic kids section, a ginormous and growing Manga section, and a kick-butt music selection. Each store differed in size and selection and their selection most likely had to do with the surrounding community and what was deemed most likely to cater to customer demand.

    As for price, I agree, their deals weren’t that great. Also, they (corporately) made a series of decisions during the time I worked there that took away a lot of their discount programs. For example, the program that gave discounts for staff selections. Axed.

    The only reason I might be nostalgic for Borders is because of the the fun I had working at a bookstore, the great people I worked with and for that era of my life in general.

  3. That’s fascinating. I’ve run into this before but apparently Borders stores vary per region. The ones out here are far better than the Barnes & Nobles—and neither of my local Borders are closing. Their selection and organization is far better (this I suspect due to store buyer?) than BN. And Borders puts out 33-40% off coupons almost every week, while BN puts out a coupon that is good on the, what, five books that they will allow you to use it on? I have found the staff knowledgeable (opposite of what I’ve found at BN), especially in the two areas I tend to browse: graphic novels and literature. As well, they have always had sections with staff recommendations while the BN stores around have nothing of the like.

    All that said, I’m not sure why anyone would necessarily be eulogizing Borders as 1) it’s still in operation and 2) while it’s a nice way to browse through available literature, it’s hardly necessary—since we have the internet.

  4. Fair points, all.

    I’m actually surprised to hear about that level of variety. I’ve been to at least ten different Borders bookstores (including in Ann Arbor), and have never once found them up to the B&N level, and I’m not even a fan of B&N. I honestly thought that after all those times at different Borders, the uniformity of experience was truly because of consistent corporate decisions.

    Barnes and Noble fails many times, but I encountered such variety of quality from store to store that I assumed they had greater freedom in book choices. The Borders that I attended consistently had a strong anti-religious and pro-New Age book buying strategy.

    So, I apologize for my harshness. Except toward those ten-plus Borders that I’ve been to.

  5. I’m just going to say it – I love Borders. I really do. It’s one of my favorite stores and I find it to be FAR superior to Barnes and Noble, for the simple fact that it runs their music selection into the ground. I NEVER find albums by artists I listen to at B&N but can almost always find them at Borders.

    And sure, B&N carries mainline alternative music publications like Alternative Press, but if you’re looking for the latest issue of mags like Outburn, Substream, etc – you’ll have to head down the road to Borders.

    This debate is pointless anyway, because any midwesterner knows that Hastings bests both of these establishments. It’s like the best book store, best music store, best video game store, best electronics store, and best movie store all smashed into one. And it’s awesome. And I wish they had one in Kentucky. And every time I travel home, it’s one of the first stops I make. And I’ve said enough about this.

  6. Kiel, I’m going to go ahead and say it… using music sections to compare book stores doesn’t really speak to me where I’m at right now.

  7. Yeah, I kind of just wanted to post that in jest (mostly towards myself) – although I do still feel that way.

  8. I thought Hastings started in Texas? Anyway, we had several in Amarillo where I grew up and I totally agree–it was better than Borders or B&N.

    But as far as pure book stores, Barnes and Noble gets my vote.

    You see how diplomatic I can be?

  9. Does nobody care about BN’s dearth of usable coupons? Or the fact that you have to pay to get their frequent buyer card? Those two negatives alone make it a store that I’ll only use if I happen to have gotten a giftcard for Christmas or something. I guess I’ve also gone in to browse when it’s been convenient so that I would have a better idea what to buy from Amazon.

    Still, the one thing no bookstore has that every bookstore should have is: the ability to browse reviews while in-store. This has been ameliorated somewhat by the growing presence of smartphones, but for those of us who aren’t rich enough to have such luxuries, I’m still stuck writing names on the back of a receipt or something and going home to look it up—where I might as well buy from Amazon, the one lure of the bookstore (the holding it in your hands impulse buy) having been roundly defeated by its own shortsightedness.

  10. I have had good and bad experiences at Borders, depending on which store I was in — one nearby is closing and one is not. As someone noted, their “couponing” is quite a bit superior to most other stores, and I’ve always appreciated how, with the ship-to-store option, I can have the coupon actually mean something off the price of an online order, rather than just cover the shipping.

    But I’ve also been frustrated when they list items online that are out of stock and won’t be re-ordered and with the skinny selection in some areas that I like to browse, as well as the shrinking selection in some others.

    Not going to rejoice or be thankful at the closings, though, since it means local store employees lose jobs and my schadenfreude at the comeuppance for the chain’s bad decisions really doesn’t weigh very much in the balance against that.

  11. Out here in Lansing there is a book store called Shuler that I found interesting. I have only been a couple times and I have no idea what their selection is like, but they had the cool practice of leaving little notes on the shelves that made comments about the books. There were a number of comments along the lines of “if you liked ____ famous book/author then try ____ obscure new author” that were dumb (and every new fantasy book/author is compared to LotR/Tolkien, why does everyone do that?). But there was one store worker who obviously had a passion for books and left good insight into the writing style, or a joke about the author, or complaining that the next book isn’t coming out yet, etc. I really liked that and I wish more book stores took an interest in the books they sold. Borders/BN don’t really do that so their worth comes down to a simple formula of selection, price, and convenience.

    I guess I should actually say something about the article. Here is what I read: Ben hates hippies, Ann Arbor, and hippies living in Ann Arbor (just teasing). I agree, though, I found Borders to have a very limited Sci-Fi/Fantasy section which is my personal favorite.

  12. I worked at Borders for over 6 years, and let me tell you the staff knew books. You try figuring out what book a customer wants when their only description is “it has a blue cover and either a dog or a house on the cover”. Our kid’s, music, and history sections were quite extensive, and we had many books on C.S. Lewis at all times. Customer service was HUGE until recent management came in and slashed staff, slashed hours, required hourly goals on sales of specific titles, and “book drives” that were more about sales than charity. I will miss the Borders of a few years ago as customers were friends and working was fun. B&N has no style it’s just a store.

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