This evening I walked through the chaos that was once a Borders Book Store. Garish yellow clearance signs, half empty shelves, and the cafe dark and stanchioned. This was not just any store, it was my Borders.
There are three things that have surprised me about the recent press articles on the demise of Borders Books. The last two are an important reminder to anyone who runs a service business.
The first, that it was founded in 1971 by brothers with the last name Borders (Tom and Louis). I always thought it was a good name for a book store. I took liberty that it was solely a play on the concept of what a border can be. Books challenge where we draw the line. What are the borders we establish to define our own limits?
When I moved to the US in 2000 I sought to compare Borders and Barnes and Noble with Chapters and Indigo in Canada. Each had its own personality (In Canada, I preferred Indigo, alas they eventually merged). It seemed at the time that Borders carried a more varied inventory and their staff more passionate about reading. I readily admit that my test sample was narrow and I shouldn’t judge any service organization on one or two employees.
My family settled in an area of North Phoenix that was unfortunately void of anything independent. Chain stores ruled in artificial mega malls. I wrote in earlier blogs about my search for a place to pursue my writing, Where To Write
This is where my second point arises. In all the articles that discuss the management missteps at Borders and how E-publishing dealt the death blow, there has been no mention of customer service at the store level.
If I use myself as a sample demographic, I get a very clear picture on where else Borders went wrong. We are a family of four. My spouse is in a monthly book club and our teenage son is an avid reader. In addition to my own appetite for fiction, I also procure a steady stream of books and magazine on my interests in writing, computers, and photography. In a one year period we consolidated all of our purchases at Borders. I would estimate this to be about 40 titles. In addition, practically every Sunday for over a year I would spend two and half hours writing at the same table in one location in their SBC Café. In addition there was also evenings and sometimes two visits a weekend. At least once a month visited all three Borders in my general area. I doubt there is much argument that my family and I represented a valuable consumer group for both books and Café purchases.
In that year the staff in the café of my main location did an excellent job learning my name and my beverage preferences. I also reached out to interact with the booksellers. It wasn’t difficult to identify those who were in leadership roles. I often asked them questions, at times offered helpful suggestions and in general tried to develop a convivial relationship.
Shortly into my second year, I had an interaction with a female who I believed to be an Assistant Manager. I had spoken to her many times in the previous year. She had no idea who I was and treated me with a dismissive attitude that left me cold. I walked out of the store that day and never returned.
The third and the final wheel to the tricycle that Borders rode to their demise was what didn’t happen next. For years, information has been the most valuable asset of any organization. The rise of Google illustrates what an expertise in this field can represent. For over a year, Borders captured detailed information about my family and our buying habits. When a steady stream of revenue stopped, I wondered if their systems were intuitive enough to reach out and ask me why. Nothing ever came.
I moved on and switched to Barnes and Noble where technology quickly had me moving again. Not an e-book as you might suspect but the lack of plugs in their café or near their work tables. As my computer has aged, so has the capacity of my battery. This would be a discussion for another day, the failure of store design to keep me as a customer.
If bookstores are to survive, they need to become meeting places and tied into the cultural mosaic of the community they serve. Author’s readings, classes, writing groups, must all be encouraged (even at a price to participate). They need to connect with people and encourage repeat visits. The paper and ink versions of books will become more of a collectable that an immediate consumable.
Thankfully two independent coffee shops also opened within proximity to my home, and this is where I can happily be found on my writing mornings. And yes, I will be buying an e-reader in the next few months but I don’t think anyone is going to miss me in a book store.