Borders Books’ Gutless Magazine Ban
Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks, April 2, 2006
In the mid-1980s Borders Books and Music was one store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It has since evolved into a chain of 470 superstores in the United States, 54 abroad, and another 650 Waldenbooks—mall kiosks that serve up bestsellers and how-to’s like triple-decker burgers at Wendy’s—for a combined $3.9 billion in sales and 34,000 employees. What stands out about Borders, for readers who care about finding more than the latest Crichton and Clancy landfillers on the shelves anyway, isn’t its middling Wall Street profile. It’s that Borders has been to suburban sprawl what Constantinople was to the Middle Ages—a concentrate of culture slightly more bracing than the surrounding gruel. The company’s PR (“finding new ways to surprise and delight customers—and turn them into lifelong friends”) is, for once, closer to the truth than these self-serving proclamations tend to be. So a bit of shock and a lot of disgust should greet the company’s decision not to carry the April-May issue of Free Inquiry, one of the better small magazines around, because that issue is running four of the by-now stalish Muhammad cartoons (This site has carried the whole series since January 31). Only a bit of shock because a corporation’s cravenness is never surprising, and even less so in these days of dividends by all means necessary. More disgust is warranted for various reasons: The response to critics by the Borders CEO, the fact that the left-wing blogosphere has seemed indifferent to the story, as if right-wingers championing it somehow renders it less legitimate, and of course the irony of the ban itself.
That last first: We’re not dealing with calculated tastelessness here, or some bestial new book that attempts to chop and behead its way to bestsellerdom. The magazine is devoted to, as its title suggests, free inquiry. It is un-sensational to a fault: the magazine debunks the sensational and does so in a self-consciously low key way, so as not to detract from the debunking. It doesn’t have a big circulation to speak of. And it won’t, not in a time and place when Americans are more comfortable believing the cretinous and the fanciful. So to call this a “publicity stunt” by Free Inquiry either credits the editor a bit too much or misunderstands his aims, as well as Borders’ sales: If it’s true that the average book sells about 6,000 copies, then any given issue of Free Inquiry sells more than a good portion of book titles at Borders. To call it “a pip-squeak magazine” may be accurate. But what, in publishing, isn’t crushingly pipsqueak? The remark is as demeaning to the industry as it is to the magazine. Virginia Postrel is more pointed when she asks what would Borders do “if Vanity Fair, or some equally big title, published the cartoons.” No need to speculate: Free Inquiry is being penalized on one side of the building while Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, equally the source of violence, riots, assassinations (of at least one translator), bookstore intimidation and the rest of it, back in its Ayatollah-apoplectic days, is in its nth printing and selling still at the other. There’s Postrel’s answer, likely one of many. The Borders CEO’s invocation of safety for his employees is not only gutless; it’s a lie: No one in the United States has come close to being threatened over the cartoons. The only potential threat has been material: magazines and newspapers, a near totality of whom refused to carry the cartoons, have just not wanted to risk tempting the market’s reaction to bad publicity. Borders’ Wall Street performance has been iffy at best, with missed forecasts and nervous investors. CEO Greg Josefowicz isn’t about to risk his golden retirement parachute in two years in defense of “a pipsqueak magazine.” Is he caving to terrorist, or let’s say fanatic, threats? That’s giving him and terroristo-fanatics too much credit. He’s pre-emptively caving to Wall Street’s threats, which are, dollar for dollar, livelihood for livelihood, worse than any terrorist threat has ever been: Wall Street’s cutthroat demands ends jobs and upends lives by the millions every year in this country. Terrorists and fanatics manage a hit and run, however spectacular, every four or so (I’m counting the average from World Trade I in 1993 to Oklahoma in 1995 to to World Trade II in 2001). Let’s not get into the moral equivalency of it all: Wall Street would lose on that one too.
In sum the Free Inquiry ban at Borders is nothing more, and nothing less, than a dirty little cave to market pressures. It’s unoriginal. It happens all the time. Free Inquiry is getting the attention in this case, as opposed to lesser known titles and “pipsqueaks” that get deshelved every day for lack of sales, only because the Muhammad cartoons—Islamdom’s swimsuit issue, if it ever had one—are involved. Borders doesn’t want the hassle. It doesn’t want to be bothered with doing what it once seemed to be devoted to: be an oasis for readers and freer culture in these benevolent wastelands of ours. Free Inquiry will survive. Borders will lose quite a few friends, this one included. Not that it cares. Then again, that’s how businesses begin losing their loyalists, who, in the end, are never their shareholders. I’ve spent, I guess, $10,000 in the last fifteen years at Borders. Not much for one individual, but I’m probably representative of a good deal of semi-recurrent customers who don’t have a Borders within 50 miles of their home (as I don’t). Count me out from now on Greg. Amazon will do just fine.
Pierre Tristam is an editorial writer and columnist at the Daytona Beach News-Journal and editor of Candide's Notebooks. email: firstname.lastname@example.org