Borderland Blues

Anne’s sister, Jane, works for Borders Bookstores, and if you’ve heard the news, you’ve heard that Borders is closing up shop. Last weekend’s negotiations to find a buyer failed and the Borders Group is expected to go before their bankruptcy judge and seek liquidation this week. It appears that the stores will remain open for another month as they sell off their inventory, but Jane works at the corporate office in Ann Arbor, so her future could be different. I have not spoken with Jane since the news hit, but Anne is expected in Ann Arbor. It is tough loosing your job and in this economy, finding a new one could be even tougher. Our prayers go out to Jane and her co-workers.

When I first moved to Ann Arbor in 1970, Borders had just a single store, it was on State Street. Even in this embryonic state, there was some thing special about this bookstore. There were places to sit and read in the store. I had never encountered a bookstore that actually encouraged reading without buying. The store expanded once at this locale, while I was still living in Ann Arbor. Anne and I moved to Saint Louis and on a return visit to Ann Arbor, the store had moved down the street and taken over an old Jacobson’s department store. Borders had become a super-bookstore. The years rolled on and eventually, Borders came to Saint Louis. The Library Limited, our favorite bookstore in Saint Louis, was purchased by Borders. They maintained this storefront location for a few more years, before they moved into their current location, in the Brentwood Promenade. Even there they continued to expand, by taking over an adjoining storefront.

By this time, Borders had hundreds of stores across the country. This position in the marketplace led to its characterization as the Big Brother of bookstores. It was viewed and rightly so, as a threat to the neighborhood bookstore. I just see it as part of the evolving marketplace. This same evolution eventually doomed Borders to extinction. A combination of Borders’ misinvestment into music and video products and the advent of Amazon contributed to Borders’ demise.

I worked eleven years for a technology company, Control Data that was eventually shot out underneath me. Those eleven years weigh heavily on me now as I plan my retirement. They were essentially wasted years, at least from a retirement point of view. This company offered a pension, but not a 401K plan. Like most pension plans, this one was predicated on working thirty or more years. Eleven years did not cut much mustard. Nowadays, the advent of the 401K plan tends to mitigate the demise of a company before ones pension plan has matured. Anyway you cut it though, loosing your company is worse than just loosing your job, because after all there is no appeal.

Print Is Dead

“Print is dead” – Dr. Egon Spengler, Ghostbusters

Earlier this week we received a letter from Dave. A novelty, it contained nothing too interesting, just some tax documents. What caught my interest was the stamp on the envelope. It featured the 2010 USPS stamp commemorating the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. It is pictured above.

Our two boys, Daniel and David, grew up reading this daily strip in the paper. Long after the comic strip ended and longer still since either of them had been six; they still enjoyed reading the books that collected Bill Watterson’s works. Many a long car trip went much smoother with a stack of these books in-between our two boys. Later Aunt Jane gifted this family with the massive three-volume set, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.

Most if not all of our Calvin and Hobbes books were purchased at a Borders Bookstore. Even though it was a gift, I know that The Complete Calvin and Hobbes was purchased there too. This week Borders filed for bankruptcy. A company’s failure is never a pleasant event. I spent thirteen-years riding down my first employer’s demise, years that added little to my retirement.

Any subscriber to the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch has seen the diminution of our newspaper. It is now only a shade of its former self. This is indicative of the overall decline of the newspaper industry. I doubt that Mr. Watterson would now be able to make his money, in eleven years, like he did back then.

In general, hardcopy media is suffering. Between the twin demons of Napster and iTunes the music recording industry has all but collapsed. This probably contributed to Borders problems too. The movie industry has erected barricades, which have helped, but internet and wireless bandwidth limitations have probably been more of an obstacle. Technology will eventually leapfrog these walls and lay bare Hollywood’s defenses to digital discounting.

Because the music recording industry has fallen so far, so fast, it now finds itself ahead of the curve. Going digital will never support the industry that was. Just like after the fall of the dinosaurs, only the smaller creatures will thrive. Many independent musical acts have already made this transition. They have become their own general contractors. They arrange their bookings, organize their tours and manage their own recordings. This throws more work on the shoulders of the artist and little of this new workload is artistic, it is all business. Still, musicians are making a living this way.

Online book publishing is flourishing. Outfits like Lulu, allow anyone to become their own publisher. Successful authors already have to split their time between writing and promoting. Multi-city book tours are the norm. As any author will tell you, at each stop, each volume is sold, one book at a time.

Dr. Spengler or whoever really first said that print is dead was wrong. A medium may wax or wane, but it is the current system that purveys the message that is dead. Like old Soviet central control, big music and now big bookstores are obsolete. Small and nimble is the new game in town. Like a Phoenix from its ashes a new book industry will arise. As long as there are new artists like Bill Watterson and new artworks like Calvin and Hobbes, people will buy them.