The very thought would have humiliated the book lovers who built Borders. As the inventors of the book superstore, they looked down on Barnes & Noble as a cynical copycat. But it’s been a long time since the company was run by book lovers. As Borders tries to reinvent itself, in-store displays now feature everything from Scotch tape and toy guns to AARP ads and digital music downloads. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remember I’m working in a bookstore,” says one worker at the Liberty Street store.
What led the once-proud company to this terrible turning point? The answers, as in any complex tale, are nuanced and numerous, and rooted in the past. But book industry blogger Morris Rosenthal offers a terse summary: Barnes & Noble, Rosenthal says, “outsmarted them by miles.”
In a telephone interview, Jones seems at first to disagree. “It was a series of things—not so much what Borders did wrong,” says Jones. He points out that many of the company’s worst problems are outside its control. All booksellers are being hurt by growing online sales and competition from mass merchants such as Costco and Wal-Mart, which sell best-sellers at steep discounts. And Borders’s music business is being decimated by digital downloads.