Borders’ Demise Could Open New Chapter In Urban Retail

Josh Stephens's picture
To its minimal credit, Borders Books & Music always had a a few shelves where the works of Jacobs, Mumford, Kunstler, Whyte, Florida, and others resided. 

But, judging by the financial and aesthetic bankruptcies of, respectively, Borders and many American cities, it seems that copies of Life and Death (or anything else) weren't exactly flying out the door. If the public's understanding of urban economies even began to rival its fascination for gossip, self-help, and vampires, Borders never would have arisen in the first place. And this week its creditors wouldn't have had to put a stake through its heart.  

I, for one, am glad to see it go. 

On the one hand, America inches ever more towards illiteracy. Borders stores, while far from cozy, were pleasant and reasonably stimulating, relative to, say, big boxes and supermax prisons. For countless thousands of bibliophiles and starving students who found their first jobs there, Borders sure beat McDonald's. I should know. One of my first jobs was at Barnes & Noble (same difference).

What I found working my (short) stint at B&N -- and I'm sure that Borders was much the same -- is that the mega bookstores treat books like any other commodity. Borders stores are sterile, corporate places where art, ideas, and information rot on the shelf. As I once noted in a Planetizen book review of Stacy Mitchell's Big Box Swindle, the big bookstores share far more in common with Walmart and Best Buy than they do with the independent stores that populate Main Street. Or that used to. 

Along with the other mega-retailers who benefited from perverse incentives in planning, zoning, and tax laws, Borders assisted in the gutting of American retail streets and the decimation of a proud entrepreneurial and intellectual tradition. In my hometown, I have already shed enough tears for Dutton's, Wilshire Books, and others. I, unlike Borders' fans, am all tapped out. 

But I'm hopeful about what could arise after the demise of Big Book.  

The U.S. government bailed out the auto and finance industries because, so the argument goes, the economy depended on them. But that's only half the reason. The other half is that those industries have incredibly high barriers to entry. If you want cars and banks, you have to stick with the ones you have. You can't design and build cars or a banking system overnight. 

You can, however, set up a bookstore in pretty short order. (In downtown L.A. one opened up from nothing a few weeks ago.) 

I want to believe, as Jacobs' famous title implies, that the pendulum can swing back. In fact, the conditions could not be better for a revival of independent retail. 

Borders, which is closing its last 399 stores, collapsed because it had too few customers to support hundreds of enormous stores. But that doesn't mean that there aren't enough customers to support smaller stores in equal, or even greater, numbers. For a little while, in cities where Borders already drove out all the independents, those customers will be out of luck. But then they should start raising hell. Perhaps a few of them will even found stores of their own.

The next wave of startup bookstores will face competition from neither Borders nor other independents. The same recession that has depressed consumer spending has also depressed commercial rental rates. Vacant storefonts in Main Streets and in strip malls alike are there for the asking. You could probably buy a truckload of gently used books for what it costs to air condition a single Borders for a month. These new stores will, I suspect, instantly gain the loyalty -- and money -- of legions of customers who formerly thought that Borders was the ne plus ultra of retail. They will quickly learn the error of their ways.

They will also make cities better. People on the extremes, who are both cynical of and rapturous about the free market, forget that some forms of commerce have intrinsic social benefits. Payday advance places and Hot Topic, for example, probably do not. But bookstores do. They are lively places, ideally with something for everyone. They bring people together and give them something to talk about. They foster the exchange of ideas that make cities great, and wealthy, in the first place. And, when they are independent and local, they create a multiplier effect. 

Cities with half a brain will throw out the tiresome manual that says that economic development depends on factories and infrastructure. They should, instead, seize this moment and promote entrepreneurship. A bookstore-centric economic development plan probably makes little sense. But just as cities have lured big boxes for all the wrong reasons, they can probably figure out ways to make their storefronts and urban neighborhoods more inviting to entrepreneurs. 

Most antiques don't get a second chance. Sure, some folks still ride horses, and fewer still take the hotrod out on Saturday night. The market for ironic vintage fashion is bigger than ever. But the demise of Borders does not mean that books have become antiques. Books have survived for 600 years, and bookstores are not much younger. As a human innovation, they are bested only by cities themselves. 

The bookstore is dead. Long live the bookstore. 

Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report ( and former editor of The Planning Report (



Re: Borders’ Demise Could Open New Chapter In Urban Retail

Here, here!

Since 2005, over 400 new independent bookstores have opened in the U.S.:

Lots of opportunities for cities that want to build great places and promote entrepreneurship.

Stacy Mitchell
New Rules Project
a program of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

the demise of Borders

I don't quite agree with your point... Not all Borders pushed out an independent bookstore. The Borders I frequented was in a newly developed suburb, which hadn't had a bookstore previously. Now there is none. I live a good distance from said suburb, and even farther from the downtown area where there are good niche bookstores specializing in mystery, comics, etc. Borders filled that niche for me... I could find the graphic novel my son wanted right there on the shelf. Yes, it was a big box, but not a supermax prison. I worked at Barnes and Noble right out of college with my newly minted degree in literature, and in addition to providing health benefits and a 401K plan (when independent bookstores in the area did no such thing), they offered book groups for kids and adults, and great customer service. While our bosses may have been worried about sales, the booksellers simply loved sharing their favorites and making recommendations. Finding that perfect book for a parent to give their child about the new baby, finding a back to school book for a reluctant first grader, finding a classic for someone to give as gift... we were much more than a "retail outlet."

I, for one, mourn the demise of Borders... and while I hope independent bookstores fill in the hole they have left... we have lost something of quality.

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