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Architecture + Branding: Demise of Borders Books and Music exposed the fallacy and limitations of the book superstore model

1-Inventory management system

In the 1970s, major department stores were the principal retail source for books for the avid reader and book club members. Bookstores at the time had a tendency to be local in market reach, and small in physical size.

Focusing on selling used books, brothers Tom and Louis Borders opened the original Border’s Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1971 (source: CBSNews.com, wikipedia.org, npr.org). By the mid-1970s, the store had relocated a few times, finally settling into a larger 10,000 square-foot location (source: cnn.com). Additionally, the company focus had shifted away from used books towards new books, and onto expansion.

Borders SA 3750 University Avenue Madison WI 6 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 3750 University Avenue, Madison, Wisconsin (source: maps.google.com)

Prior to the proliferation of personal computers, Borders had developed a system to catalogue and curate their vast book inventory on three-inch-square punch cards (source: cnn.com). Tailoring the store offerings to the community through the Borders brother’s inventory system was at the core of the brand. The novel inventory approach led to the formation of Book Inventory Systems (BIS), a separate business supplying to other independent booksellers (source: cnn.com, wikipedia.org).

Borders SA 4545 Kenny Road Columbus OH 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 4545 Kenny Road, Columbus, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)

Along with NY-based Barnes & Noble, Inc., Borders Books helped pioneer the big-box bookseller concept. The new 20,000-40,000 sq. ft superstores, proposing between 100,000 and 200,000 titles in large, bright, well-lit stores where lingering was encouraged ran counter to the smaller, 2,000-3,000 sq. ft., 20,000 to 50,000 titles, mall-based chains such as B. Dalton and Waldenbooks (source: CBSNews.com). In the 20 years following the opening of the Ann Arbor store, the Borders brothers would go on to open several additional stores.

DSC13745 Borders - Borders Rewards card

Borders Rewards card

2-Age of superstores

By the late 1980s, the big-box bookstore phenomenon seemed to have been visibly embraced by the book buying public at large. However, smaller mall-based chains, which excelled at selling high-velocity commercial bestsellers, were declining in numbers and suffering marked sales declines.

Borders SA 151 Andover Street Peabody MA 3 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 151 Andover Street, Peabody, Massachusetts (source: maps.google.com)

In 1992, mall-based book chain Waldenbooks owner Kmart, acquired the 21-store Borders chain from brothers Louis and Tom (source: cnn.com, wikipedia.org). Kmart merged the struggling Waldenbooks chain with Borders in the hopes of forming a successful book unit (source: cnn.com, wikipedia.org, CBSNews.com). However, realizing synergies and efficiencies would prove difficult.

Borders SA 1100 East Dimond Boulevard Anchorage AK 4 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 1100 East Dimond Boulevard, Anchorage, Alaska (source: maps.google.com)

In 1995, Kmart spun off the book unit as a separate company.

Ignoring the budding competitive implications at the time, Borders-Walden Group, later renamed Borders Group, began operations the same year that Amazon started selling books online (source: CBSNews.com, wikipedia.org).

Borders SM 2323 South Decatur Boulevard Las Vegas NV 6 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Side 3/4 view), 2323 South Decatur Boulevard, Las Vegas, Nevada (source: maps.google.com)

For much of the 1990s, the future looked promising for Borders. Second only to Barnes & Noble, Borders grew rapidly. At its peak, there were in excess of 1,200 Borders and Waldenbooks stores (source: cnn.com). Additionally, Borders had a huge U.S. and international presence with stores in Singapore, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. (source: cnn.com, businessinsurance.org, wikipedia.org).

Borders SA 1501 Plymouth Road Minnetonka MN 4 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (side 3/4 view), 1501 Plymouth Road, Minnetonka, Minnesota (source: maps.google.com)

Wreaking havoc on the smaller competitors, category-killers such as Borders acted like other mass-market retailers, pressing the local independent book stores when they entered new markets and flooding the area with lower prices and vast quantities.

3-Retail space for lease

Seemingly applying a space-first approach, building stand-alone superstores, opening locations in strip malls and enclosed malls, popping up in urban and suburban locales, Borders was in a race for space to grow in lockstep with Barnes & Noble.

DSC09363 Borders - B&N 3956 State Highway 31 Clay NY

Barnes & Noble (Front 3/4 view), 3956 State Highway 31, Clay, New York

Seeking to establish a national presence, Borders was opening stores in large, medium and smaller cities across the United States. Matching Barnes & Noble superstore for superstore, Borders invested heavily in new stores, which contributed to a glut of bookstores (source: businessinsurance.org, time.com). Interestingly, Borders had a tendency to locate their stores in close proximity to Barnes & Noble stores.

Borders SA 4230 Grape Road Mishawaka IN 5 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 4230 Grape Road, Mishawaka, Indiana (source: maps.google.com)

Borders became unwieldy large, with many of its stores (an estimated 70 percent) competing with a local Barnes & Noble (source: time.com). Furthermore, in some cities, Borders ended up competing with itself by operating several stores within a five-mile radius.

Borders SA 9750 West Broad Street Glen Allen VA 5 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 9750 West Broad Street, Glen Allen, Virginia (source: maps.google.com)

While Barnes & Noble earned a reputation for paying close attention to site selection during the superstore boom of the 1990s, Borders did not garner as much industry praise. Borders had a policy of trying to make “A locations” out of “B location” (source: businessweek.com). Although many centrally located stores were profitable, the company maintained a tendency to locate in lower-cost, less than prime, sites.

Borders SA 12171 West Sunrise Boulevard Plantation FL 3 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Side view), 12171 West Sunrise Boulevard, Plantation, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

Then, in the early 2000s, the economy started moving farther away from brick-and-mortar to click-and-mortar web-based/internet-based “e-tailing”. As consumers were shifting to online shopping, Borders found itself with too many stores for too few customers. Borders was saddled with a number of unprofitable and under-performing stores (source: businessinsurance.org). Brick-and-mortar bookstores have suffered heavily from competition, low margins, changing reading habits, disruptive technology (electronic readers and e-books), as well as the internet’s ability to instantaneously deliver content.

Borders SA East 53rd Street Davenport Iowa North Ridge Shopping Center 2 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), East 53rd Street, Davenport, Iowa (source: maps.google.com)

Borders SA East 53rd Street Davenport Iowa North Ridge Shopping Center 4 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Side 3/4 view), East 53rd Street, Davenport, Iowa (source: maps.google.com)

Additionally, the Great Recession in the latter half of the 2000s hit the retail sector very hard. Borders precarious number two big-box market position, along with its slow technology adoption rate, left it more exposed during the economic downturn.

Borders SM 6751 Strip Avenue Northwest North Canton OH 6 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 6751 Strip Avenue Northwest, North Canton, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)

Furthermore, having extensively encouraged lounging and browsing, the big-box bookstores were beginning to discover some of the unintended consequences of their decisions.

Borders SA Lake Street at Boston Turnpike Shrewsbury MA 2 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), Lake Street at Boston Turnpike, Shrewsbury, Massachusetts (source: maps.google.com)

Many Borders locations featured cafés, which resulted in large numbers of customers simply browsing, hanging out, drinking coffee, perusing the merchandise and leaving without a purchase. Effectively transformed into de facto libraries, showrooming would effectively begin to erode Borders sales as customers could examine the books in-store, and buy them online from a lower-cost internet provider.

Borders SM 915 Hartford Turnpike Waterford Commons Waterford CT 2 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 915 Hartford Turnpike, Waterford, Connecticut (source: maps.google.com)

The demise of Borders hardly spells the end for books, or book superstores. However, the Borders rise and fall story should serve as a warning sign to other big-box book retailers.

Borders SM 281 Daniel Webster Highway Nashua NH 2 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 281 Daniel Webster Highway, Nashua, New Hampshire (source: maps.google.com)

Barnes & Noble, the number one book superstore, will need to address and resolve issues such as excessive, duplicate and under-performing stores, technological shifts, low margins and discounting, and fierce competition that plagued Borders. Perhaps a sign that some seismic shifts are afoot, few Borders locations have drawn interest from competitors.

DSC13336 Borders - B&N 600 Pine Street Seattle WA

Barnes & Noble, 600 Pine Street, Seattle, Washington

Closing outlets as leases expire, pushing deeper into e-books, and reworking the product mix to focus on higher profit margin non-book items, such as home goods, educational toys and games, could dramatically reshape the future of big-box bookstores.

4-Unconcerned with uniformity

In many business endeavours, building a national, or global, brand demands repeated impressions of a coordinated, cohesive message. However, Borders Books and Music, in its national retail build-out campaign glossed over this particular chapter, and bewilderingly rarely attempted to apply one singular over-arching universal design language to its store design.

Borders SM 3309 Esperanza Crossing Austin TX 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 3309 Esperanza Crossing, Austin, Texas (source: maps.google.com)

Fortunately for its remaining competitors, many of Borders former stores can easily be converted and re-utilized by other retailers with minimal improvements or modifications.

Borders SA 8015 South Yale Avenue Tulsa OK 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 8015 South Yale Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

Borders SA 8015 South Yale Avenue Tulsa OK 3 THE FRESH MARKET https___maps.google

The Fresh Market (Front 3/4 view), 8015 South Yale Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma (source: maps.google.com)

Borders SM 1751 Walnut Street Cary NC 3 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 1751 Walnut Street, Cary, North Carolina (source: maps.google.com)

Borders SM 1751 Walnut Street Cary NC 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Side 3/4 view), 1751 Walnut Street, Cary, North Carolina (source: maps.google.com)

Borders SM 1751 Walnut Street Cary NC 4 REI https___maps.google

REI (Side 3/4 view), 1751 Walnut Street, Cary, North Carolina (source: maps.google.com)

Borders SM 6 Wayside Road Burlington MA 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 6 Wayside Road, Burlington, Massachusetts (source: maps.google.com)

Borders SM 6 Wayside Road Burlington MA 2 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 6 Wayside Road, Burlington, Massachusetts (source: maps.google.com)

Borders SM 6 Wayside Road Burlington MA 5 ETHAN ALLEN https___maps.google

Ethan Allen (Front 3/4 view), 6 Wayside Road, Burlington, Massachusetts (source: maps.google.com)

Unfazed by vertical or horizontal separations, Borders Books and Music stores could occupy single floor locations as easily as multi-storey buildings. In one instance, parting the floorplan into different sections, in the other, dedicating entire floors to particular genres.

Borders SA 2210 West 95th Street Chicago IL 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 2210 West 95th Street, Chicago, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

Some Borders stores featured circular turret towers that would jut out of the corner of the façade, physically embodying some of the idyllic romance and innocence of children’s books filled with dragons, castles and fairy tale happily-ever-after endings.

Borders SM 931 Capital Centre Boulevard Upper Marlboro MD 6 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 931 Capital Centre Boulevard, Upper Marlboro, Maryland (source: maps.google.com)

Alternatively, a curved arch parapet wall might adorn the front façade. However, this particular design element can be seen ad nauseam across numerous malls across the country, and could hardly be considered distinct or instantly assignable to Borders.

Borders SM 6601 Edwardsville Crossing Drive Edwardsville IL 1 BAM https___maps.google

Books-A-Million (BAM) – FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 6601 Edwardsville Crossing Drive, Edwardsville, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

At times, sedate and more traditional aesthetics were in order.

Borders MS 5333 Wisconsin Avenue Northwest Washington DC 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 5333 Wisconsin Avenue Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia (source: maps.google.com)

At other times, Borders stores embraced modern and current architectural trends with slick, seamless, and high-tech metal and glass exteriors.

Borders MS 1700 Maple Avenue Evanston IL 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 1700 Maple Avenue, Evanston, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

It was not be uncommon to have a Borders Books and Music store located in a strip mall, enclosed mall, on a busy thoroughfare, on a traditional main street, or within a dedicated freestanding building.

Borders MS 1144 West Lake Street Oak Park IL 1

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 1144 West Lake Street, Oak Park, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

Operating out of smaller buildings near residential areas, large suburban malls, or another building type, the individual stores seemed to accentuate a unique, divergent, non-repetitive, non-conformist brand message.

Borders SM 6151 Columbia Crossing Circle Columbia MD 3 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 6151 Columbia Crossing Circle, Columbia, Maryland (source: maps.google.com)

However, multiple Borders stores remained indistinguishable from other retailers, often blending into the retail landscape amongst various other retailers. Nonetheless, the main/principal store entrance generally featured some form of architectural accent, awning, entrance canopy, colonnade, or arcade.

Borders SM 6151 Columbia Crossing Circle Columbia MD 2 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 6151 Columbia Crossing Circle, Columbia, Maryland (source: maps.google.com)

Little adherence to a specified materials list resulted in Borders Books and Music stores clad in brick, stone, EIFS, metal siding, or a combination of materials. Additionally, Borders Books and Music seemed to lack a uniform colour scheme, or colour palette.

Borders MS 17141 Kercheval Avenue Grosse Pointe MI 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front view), 17141 Kercheval Avenue, Grosse Pointe, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)

The variations on the retail “vanilla box” would adopt the window allocation and design, strip, or punched, as dictated by the particular retail development. As a result, stores exhibited a greater or lesser degree of visibility, transparency, luminosity and opacity depending on the glazing quantity and distribution pattern.

Borders SM 76 Fort Eddy Road Concord NH Eddy Plaza Shopping Center 1 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 76 Fort Eddy Road, Concord, New Hampshire (source: maps.google.com)

Furthermore, another design element, window light shelves and awnings, were intimately tied to the window type, placement and apportionment.

Borders MS 700 New Hampshire Street Lawrence KS 3 https___maps.google

FORMER Borders (Front 3/4 view), 700 New Hampshire Street, Lawrence, Kansas (source: maps.google.com)

Even though, by chance or by design, the Borders Books and Music stores illustrated a proclivity towards locale-skewed design tendencies, it remains difficult to argue that a systemic absence of a reliable architectural identity, lacking a single repetitive design element, other than signage and typeface, could have enhanced or reinforced the Borders brand message.

5-A social role for bookstores

Some 40 years ago, Borders began as a small, personalized, independent bookstore in a Midwestern college town. Over its existence, the brand expanded from books into music and entertainment, and eventually retrenched back to books. Subsequently, the chain would retreat completely from its original business.

Management missteps, massive debt, long-term retail leases, ignoring the decline in music and DVD sales, outsourcing their website to Amazon.com, falling behind on technology, dismissing the emergence of electronic books, accrued to spectacularly damage the company’s sales, market position and business model (source: time.com, businessinsurance.org).

DSC13750 Borders - Mini Kobo reader

Mini Kobo e-Reader

In February 2011, Borders Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. By September 2011, Borders had shuttered all remaining stores, and ceased operations (source: businessinsurance.org, wikipedia.org, npr.org).

DSC13614 Borders - Powell's 1005 Burnside Street Portland OR

Powell’s Books (Partial Front 3/4 view), 1005 Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon

DSC13615 Borders - Powell's 1005 Burnside Street Portland OR

Powell’s Books (Partial Side 3/4 view), 1005 Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon

From humble beginnings, it had grown into an unmanageable, sprawling, commoditized, impersonal experience. The love, care, and attention for books that defined the Borders brand in the early years had been jettisoned along the way.

DSC13330 Borders - B&N 600 Pine Street Seattle WA

Book display shelves (seen from upper level), Barnes & Noble, 600 Pine Street, Seattle, Washington

In a serendipitous bit of irony, the demise of Borders may allow for the proliferation of smaller, independent, community-focused, local bookstores that can produce retail alchemy. Capturing the ephemeral and intangible qualities of the bookstores of yore by being that special place that can fulfill a social purpose that allows for discovery, escapism and discourse, whilst profitably selling books.

DSC13618 Borders - Powell's 1005 Burnside Street Portland OR

Book display shelves (First floor), Powell’s Books, 1005 Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon

One can imagine, new tales of eager readers, sitting on the floor, surrounded by stacks of books, nestled in cramped musty bookstores full of character and idiosyncrasies, could emerge from the downfall of one of the book superstore pioneers.

 

Disclosure:

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

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About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.

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