Readers Without Borders

on Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Call me petty, but it warmed my heart a little to see the collapse of Borders in the UK. I break out in hives whenever I am forced to think about the crushing power of the book-as-mass commodity mindset championed by these monster barns. Not that Borders is the only guilty party. I vomited a little in my mouth recently when I heard some people discussing the amazing book bargains at Costco, the first festering store of which has just landed in Melbourne. Pity the poor independent bookstore that is forced to compete against a few-opoly of small minds that conspire to bring down the perceived value of the printed word to a level that cannot possibly be sustainable for publishers, let alone indie booksellers.

Rumours have long abounded that the Australian arm of Borders was to suffer a similar fate. I think it was two years ago that I first heard that the Jam Factory store was to close by Christmas. Unfortunately, David Fenlon, CEO of Redgroup, owners of the Aussie Borders franchise, assures us that the pulp megastore is not only alive and well, but getting set to float. Redgroup hits the ASX ticker tape charade sometime next year if reports are to be believed. It's a nice way out of an economic pickle, so long as anyone cares enough to bite. Personally, I see it as a missed opportunity for killing two birds with one stone. Redgroup also owns Angus & Robertson, whose green backlit signs help dull down countless suburban shopping malls.

Snobbery aside, I am all for encouraging as many people to read as possible. I recognise that there is a place for Dan Brown, Danielle Steel and J. K. Rowling (ok the first 3 books were pretty good, but thereafter where was an editor???). I just worry about the future of independent bookstores and local publishers. We might have had success with the defeat of the parallel book importing laws, but I can't help but feel it was just a case of buying time. Between the e-reader and the cannibalisation of the smaller stores by totalitarian regime styled, homogenising super companies (read HMV who ate Waterstones who ate Hatchards, one of the finest London bookstores), the future looks grim.

I hold out small hope that the failure of Borders was the first domino. When the bottom line is the bottom line, bookselling cannot be a viable long-term investment. Perhaps when the giants do fall, people will be encouraged to go to their local little bookstore where they might pay a bit more but will rub shoulders with customers and staff who love and actually know about books, while supporting a small but crucial pillar on which our culture stands.


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