Len Riggio, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and the successful independent proprietors, whatever their other business virtues and flaws, really have a deep attachment to books and the people who read them. But when Borders expanded, they brought in executives from supermarkets and department stores (all of whom insisted they were readers), and the result was a shuffle of titles and more downsizing against a backdrop of financial engineering, which only seemed to make matters worse. Ultimately, a successful bookstore, on any scale, depends on a specific understanding of how to make the most of the outpouring of books and the digital transformation that will attract readers. Whatever else Borders does in the months ahead, it needs to recover its belief that real bookselling is an art (with all the peculiarities that entails), as well as a viable business.I've worked on a lot of books about business strategy, and an unresolved tension in that world surrounds the question of whether a great leader can run any kind of business. On the one hand, it seems simplistic to say that selling books is exactly the same as selling soap, cars, or cement. But on the other hand, I am skeptical of publishing people who say "Our industry is so unique that we have nothing to learn from other companies."
I think in the end the right answer for book companies (whether publishers, retailers, distributors, or what have you) in these challenging times is to seek a tricky balance: Hire "book people" with a deep knowledge and love of the things readers value, but make sure they are willing to study and learn from the most creative minds in other businesses. It sounds as though Borders had difficulty finding that balance. Here's hoping they can find a way to survive.