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closing the borders
(arizonians, it's not what you think)
by dirk cotton
pop culture

They’re closing the Borders in Chapel Hill.

And, no, I don’t mean they’ll be using checkpoints to screen Duke and N.C. State fans at the city limits (though they’d like to).

In fact, according to an article in the Raleigh News and Observer today, only one Borders will remain open in the entire Triangle area. Fortunately, there’s a Barnes and Noble just a mile or so farther down the road, though technically it’s in Durham.

I’ve gotten used to the Chapel Hill Borders and I’m going to miss it. I’m not sure why, though, because— and I know this really sounds crazy— I never really bought a lot of books there.

The last time I tried to buy a book at Borders was just before last Christmas, when I wanted to buy my son, Eric, a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Eric lives in Asheville, where Wolfe was born and the story is set, and I thought he’d enjoy it.

They didn’t have one.

“Are you aware,” I asked the clerk, “that Thomas Wolfe is one of the most famous graduates in the history of UNC-Chapel Hill?”

“Really?” he asked.

“There’s a monument to Wolfe on campus. There’s an entire library devoted to his work. William Faulkner called him the greatest writer of his time.”

“Wow,” he replied. “We should really have a copy in stock, I guess.”

I ended up buying a copy at a new local bookstore called Flyleaf Books. When I asked if they had a copy of Look Homeward, Angel, they looked at me like I’d just walked into a McDonalds and asked if they had hamburgers.

If any Borders in America should have copies of Thomas Wolfe’s major works, it’s the one in Chapel Hill.

I’m not distressed that I’m losing my hometown Borders so much as I’m concerned that this is the beginning of the end for bookstores. They seem to be following the lead of Tower Records. Remember them?

When I was a teenager, we bought 45 rpm records and LP albums from small record shops like E-town Record and Music Shop in downtown Elizabethtown, KY, squeezed between the Oldsmobile dealership and the State movie theater. (You remember Oldsmobiles, right?)

Eventually, larger companies like Tower Records realized they could cut prices by dealing in greater volumes, so they opened multi-floor stores with jazz departments larger than most small record shops’ entire store. We used to shop at one in Georgetown. It was overwhelming. You could drift through three or four floors of records for hours.

Eventually, CD’s replaced records and then the Internet started selling digital music that could be downloaded even more cheaply and with greater selection. You could find and buy any music you wanted. Tower Records filed for bankruptcy in 2006, but still operates an Internet business at tower.com.

Back in the day, books were sold out of small stores like the one Hugh Grant’s character ran in Notting Hill. The books were often sealed in plastic to keep them pristine, more than a glance at the contents was discouraged, and the sign at the door always said, “No Food or Drinks”.

Then some large companies, like Borders and Barnes and Noble, decided they might sell more books from huge, well-lit stores with sofas and stuffed chairs where customers could read for hours if they wished, with a Starbucks in the corner, again taking advantage of larger sales volumes.

Once again, the Internet interrupted the best plans, offering an unbounded selection, quick delivery and lower prices enabled by both increased volume and lower real estate costs. Just this week Borders announced, to no one’s surprise, that it was filing for bankruptcy.

I stopped by the local Borders today to get one last look and found a couple of books that interested me. The first, Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants, was available for $36. Amazon.com offers it for $18.73 and it's eligible for free shipping if my order totals $25. In my experience, it will appear at my door in a surprisingly short time.

I can order a used copy for $13.99. In fact, I can sell a copy of the book at Amazon after I read it. I can also order it in e-book format for $19.99 and start reading it in minutes.

If I order it online, of course, I’ll have to forego the couch in the store and the Seattle’s Best in the front corner, but it isn’t like Chapel Hill wants for coffee shops, most of which have more ambiance and better lattes.

Borders discounts best sellers, so Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive, which lists for $28.95, is sold at a 30% discount, bringing the price down to $20.27. But I can buy a new hardcover from Amazon for $15.70, a Kindle e-book version for $12.99 or a used hardcover for $6.64.

So, the Internet offers an unlimited selection of books, significantly cheaper, with quick delivery. How did Borders ever have a chance?

They didn’t attract customers with large floor space devoted to CDs, either. That business began waning before books.

Ultimately, I’m not sure why I’m sad to see Borders go. I certainly hate to see the jobs lost, and the big box it occupied will sit depressingly empty across the parking lot from Lowes, perhaps for years in this economy.

I liked wandering the store, just browsing, perhaps taking a few interesting books to the coffee shop and reading a few pages. Then I’d look at the price, wince, and go home and order it online. Heck, with Borders’ free Wi-Fi, I could have ordered the book on my iPad from a competitor while I drank a cappuccino in their coffee shop.

I’d have paid a bit more for the books just to keep the business in Chapel Hill, but the premium they demanded was just too much.

I suppose if there was a book I really needed quickly, maybe for a flight I’d be taking the next day, Borders would come in handy. Or, maybe it would be convenient for a college student who needed a Cliff Notes for an exam the next day. But then again, Spark Notes are free online long after Borders closes for the evening.

My sadness is probably nostalgia. My grandfather talked fondly about plowing his garden with a mule, asking the operator to ring a neighbor for him, and listening to basketball games on the radio.

We’ll tell our grandchildren about Oldsmobile’s, record shops and enormous bookstores.

Anyway, there’s a Barnes and Noble just down the road about a mile farther.

For now, anyway.


Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

more about dirk cotton


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robert melos
2.28.11 @ 1:28p

My local Borders closed almost 2 years ago. At the time they told me they were keeping a Borders open in a mall 35 minutes away. Even then the price of gas was on the rise and I didn't make unnecessary trips out of my way. Borders lost me as a customer back then. If I someday happen to live near one again I would shop there. I love the real mortar and brick book stores, but Amazon and many other on-line sites are cheaper. Cheaper wins in this economy.

tracey kelley
2.28.11 @ 2:13p

I am also nostalgic. I met my first group of writers at a Borders, then moved to a group at Barnes and Noble. I really do like finding books I wouldn't have considered before simply because they're front-faced on the shelf. I like cookbooks with pictures, and you can't browse through many cookbooks online like you can in a bookstore. Or a library. But how many libraries are well-funded enough to stock more than one of the latest in anything?

I would like to think that libraries could pick up the community aspect of writing groups, author readings, and so on, but if libraries don't embrace the digital age, we'll see a lot of them closing, too.

I am particularly sad about Borders because it's a Michigan-based company: hometown boys in Ann Arbor who built an empire from just a couple of stores.

jeffrey walker
2.28.11 @ 5:04p

Not to mention, us and our fancy online publishing adventures. We are part of the problem.

that said, besides groceries, I buy almost everything online. It's most always cheaper and I get more choice. It's a wonder any stores stay in business, as I see it.

william carr
2.28.11 @ 11:24p

"My sadness is probably nostalgia" makes it sound like nostalgia might be a bad thing--like "I probably have the flu."

I make most of my book purchases online too. Price counts and so does availability--I used to head over to my nearest Border's in the hope that I'd find a copy of something I was looking for, but the "law of diminishing returns" kicked in. I think I enjoyed most the adventure of browsing--it's a darn sight more tactile than point-and-click. And there were possibilities of meeting other live people and talking about books or music.

Can we measure what we lose? Actually, I decline to try to quantify it, to reduce it to dollars-and-cents (to "monetize" it) would, well, reduce it. We lose something far more valuable than money can buy: we lose something of community and, therefore, something of ourselves each time we lose a place where we handle real merchandise and buy it from real people, even more so when we lose a "small business," a "mom-and-pop" store.

The re-emergence of local farm markets offers some hope for rebuilding community. Beyond that, it'll take a new set of pioneers--like the people in my neighborhood who, almost 30 years ago, "homesteaded" and began slowly to reclaim the neighborhood from blight and crime--to lay the foundations of new business communities.

dirk cotton
3.1.11 @ 10:11a

Nostalgia isn't a bad thing. It's a sentimental longing for the past. I happen to like nostalgia and prefer it to simple sadness. (Neil Young, Pink Floyd and the Beatlles don't make me sad.) I was simply suggesting that I might have mistaken nostalgia for sadness.

And I'm not sure what we've lost in this case. The closing of Chapel Hill's Borders is probably a good thing for the newly opened and local Flyleaf Books.

We have lost a coffee shop, that Borders managed to give the appearance and ambiance of a college cafeteria, and an overpriced but poor selection of books, but we still have that at the local B&N.

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