Stock - Borders (Kamal Vachani and Vivek Bahirwani)
It's all in the mix - Borders in the UAE and Middle East has reinvented itself as a lifestyle store rather than a pure-play bookstore. The strategy has paid off for Vivek Bahirwani and Kamal Vachani, Directors at Al Maya Group, which has the 'life-time rights' to Borders in this territory. Image Credit: Antonin Kelian-Kallouche/Gulf News

Dubai: Bookstores going out of fashion? In this part of the world, it somehow doesn’t seem so.

Ten years on after the parent company filed for bankruptcy in the US, the bookstore chain Borders is more than holding its own in the UAE and other Gulf markets. And Borders remains a core part of the Al Maya Group’s portfolio, which is otherwise dominated by its supermarket chain and foodstuffs trading.

Vivek Bahirwani, Director at the Group and overseeing the Borders operations, gets downright philosophical about why the brick-and-mortar store has kept going through these years. “In today’s times, and especially with COVID-19, people need an escape,” said Bahiwani. “What better way to escape reality than to read and travel through authors’ words and views.

“Bookstores allow individuals to be transported into different worlds when an escape from day-to-day life is required.”

The 'brand' stays
At the time it acquired the full regional rights, Al Maya Group did not consider dropping the 'Borders' branding because of the situation the parent company was in the US.

"The name was already an established name in the minds of our consumers - a change of name would have required a lot more than just rebranding," said Vivek Bahirwani. "The rights for Borders was bought in 2006 when the first store was opened in Mall Of The Emirates. We have the life-time rights."

Quite the story

But in 2011, things were not looking that hunky-dory. Borders in the US filed for bankruptcy in February 2011, one of the many nationwide bookstore chains that became a casualty to Amazon and the shift in the way people were consuming their reading needs. At the time, it was felt physical bookstores were an anachronism and that Amazon held all the cards that mattered in the business.

Later that year, Borders was acquired by another venerable retailer, Barnes & Noble. It was in October 2015 that Al Maya Group decided to negotiate with the new owner to bag the life-time rights to Borders in the Middle East.

Al Maya Group had been representing Borders in these markets since 2006, having opened the first superstore at Mall of the Emirates. But to take on life-time rights – and amidst all the uncertainties over the very future of the book business – was quite the leap for any partner-retailer.

Bahirwani, on reflection, says it was the done thing to do at the time. “The book business is here to stay, whether in an educational format or for someone who just needs an escape from reality,” he added. “It’s like [author] Tori Morrison said: ‘If there's a book that you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it…’.

“[And] yes, we did retain all the locations.”

Play around with the mix

But there were changes in the merchandise mix, which had to be done with an eye on the changing nature of the business of selling books. Sure, the bestsellers remained, but extra space was dedicated to lifestyle merchandise and even in the children’s section.

“Within a year (in 2016-17), we saw a shift in the market where consumers were looking for everything under one roof as the ultimate one-stop shop,” said Bahirwani. “This is when we introduced the merchandise mix consisting of books, toys and stationery.

“Borders always had a children’s section - but overtime we noticed a change in consumer behaviour. Parents wanting to reduce screen-time were giving kids books to read instead. Keeping this in mind, we introduced new authors and series on the shelves.

“Books sales vary depending on the authors and the category - there could be a season where fiction does well, especially in summer as people want a light read. Some might still prefer business-related or self-help books. Self-help books sell great all-year round and they work as great gift ideas as well.”

Not so fast on ebooks
Borders in the UAE and Gulf do sell audiobooks, but mainly those related to the region. On whether it would expand that library, "ebooks is still a market that needs to be established in the Middle East - consumers here still prefer the physical book over the e-version," said Vivek Bahirwani.

Stock up on paper

Books and toys and a whole lot of stationey – that was the other element the revitalised Borders stocked up on. There were the alliances struck with brands such as Smiggle, Paperchase and Cath Kidston. “We will soon launch Hallmark (greeting cards,” the official added. “Borders is now a lifestyle brand - customers have accepted us and love to shop at the stores.”

From being in a category that was supposedly going extinct, Borders in the UAE and the Gulf keeps stretching the possibilities. In doing so, the brand and the Al Maya Group has made one thing clear – the final word is yet to be written…