The Last Days of a Dying Behemoth

Picture: Anita Dalton

Borders bookstores have been holding fire sales and closing their doors all over Melbourne. I’ve found myself in three of them at various stages of dissolution – Camberwell, Chadstone and Melbourne Central.

This process began after REDgroup, owners of the Borders and Angus and Robertson chains in Australia, went into voluntary administration in February. But it intensified when the administrators announced at the beginning of June that they couldn’t find a buyer for the troubled company; now all 25 Borders stores in Australia have either closed or are due to close, not just the less profitable ones.

A few weeks ago I was in the Camberwell store on one of the last days of trading, searching for a bargain. What a forlorn picture it presented, rows of near-empty shelves with their familiar pale wood finish punctuated by small clumps of tired-looking books with bright yellow sale stickers on them.

All the shop fittings were up for sale, from magazine racks and bargain bins to card stands, tables and shelving; anyone wanting to set up a retail store could have stocked up for a song.

It was a strange feeling, seeing this slain behemoth take its dying breaths. When Borders moved into Australia almost 13 years ago it did so aggressively, threatening the viability of Melbourne’s vibrant independent bookstore culture.

The first Borders in Australia opened at the Jam Factory, in Chapel Street South Yarra, in 1998. But Borders’ most outrageous act was to situate its generic brand of bookselling in Lygon Street Carlton, over the road from a beloved Melbourne institution, Readings bookstore, with the aim of killing Readings off. Once a sole store in Melbourne, Readings had already become a small chain due to its astute business model.

Unfazed, Readings stuck to its model, continuing to hold launches, author talks and music performances several times a week, nurture its staff, and maintain a famous bargain table with discounts on quality books that put Borders bargains to shame. Readings did not simply survive, it thrived, perhaps working even harder to keep its loyal customer base; it now produces a literary newsletter once a month, complementing and advertising the author events.

(Sadly, the arrival of Borders spelled the end of trading in Lygon Street for an independent discount bookstore, Andrew's Books.)

Readings has continued to expand, with a new store opening in St Kilda a few years ago and one in the foyer of the State Library. It supports local small presses, and partners with a huge number of charitable and community organisations. Ever-adaptable, Readings recently opened an ebook store, complementing its bricks-and-mortar stores.

Yet there was no sense of triumph for me at wandering through the dying Borders stores. Only twinges of sadness at the passing of an era. For a time it seemed that Borders and Readings in Carlton had been able to coexist; having two bookshops in the one precinct was definitely an advantage for customers.

I browsed for ages in the Camberwell store before I found this bargain: a $1 hardback book on the work of the Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory. It was near the back entrance, on a set of shelves with discounts even higher than the 80 per cent off most of the books had.

This kind of experience – attending a depressing closing-down sale in a bookstore – seems to be emblematic of the decline in the book retail industry in Australia. But is it?

Why the demise?

Reasons commonly cited for the demise of REDgroup are the penetration of Kindle into the ebook market, rising rents, the cost of books in Australia compared with overseas online retailers such as Amazon, import restrictions and the strong Australian dollar.

But some commentators insist that Borders failed because it did not adapt and diversify in response to the difficult conditions facing bookstores. Certainly it would be wrong to blame online bookstores alone for the failure; it’s estimated that of all the books and music sold in Australia, less than 10 per cent is sold online.

Recently the federal Minister for Small Business, Nick Sherry gave a warning to booksellers – that they would be extinct in five years if they did not pull their socks up. They loudly refuted him; the head of the Australian Booksellers Association, Joel Becker, said he was stunned, and that the minister’s remarks didn’t reflect what was going on in the industry.

One action that the Australian Government could take right away to help ease the pressure on booksellers is to remove the GST from all books, not just those sold online from overseas retailers. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

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