'We are delighted that we hav' />

Just four months ago, Philip Downer, chief executive of Borders UK, was hailing the bookseller's management buyout.

"We are delighted that we have been able to secure the future for Borders," he said in July, after the deal was struck with the backing of the retail restructuring specialist Hilco.

But that future now looks bleak for the 45-store chain, which could be placed in administration as early as today.

Borders stores in New Zealand are owned by REDGroup and are not involved in the UK action.

Last night, Borders UK was not taking orders on its website and the bookseller is thought to have lined up the accountancy firm BDO as administrator if an eleventh-hour rescue deal cannot be finalised.

A spokeswoman for BDO said: "We have not yet been appointed, so we are not in a position to comment."

A Borders UK spokesman said: "Management continue to review all their options, including a sale of the business."

But Borders UK is far from an isolated example of a struggling bookseller. In January 2008, the discount bookseller The Works fell into administration, although it has emerged as a 254-store operation under the ownership of Endless, the Leeds-based private equity chain. Even the high-street stalwart Waterstone's, which has more than 300 stores, delivered a 3.4 per cent fall in underlying sales over the 18 weeks to August 29.

For a number of years, physical booksellers have haemorrhaged sales to the supermarkets and Amazon, the online giant that launched in the UK in 1998, and have suffered from the end of the Harry Potter gravy train in 2007.

According to the Booksellers Association, the market share of large book chains declined to 34 per cent in 2008, from 38.6 per cent in 2004, while internet players more than doubled their share from 6.6 per cent to 13.4 per cent over the same period.

High-street chains also have to contend with the threat of electronic book readers, most notably Amazon's Kindle device, further taking money away from their tills. In the wake of Borders UK's troubles, serious questions are again being asked about whether there is a place for booksellers on the high street.

However, the fact remains that loss-making Borders has had a trolley-full of problems for many years. The bookseller has suffered from credit insurers scaling back their cover for its suppliers since 2008.

Borders UK's auditors Ernst & Young stated the need for the continuing availability of credit insurance, when it cited "material uncertainties" about the group's ability to continue as a going concern in its latest annual report, published in July.

Greg Hodge, the non-food research director at Planet Retail, also says that Borders UK, which has Starbucks outlets in stores, has been hampered by its out-of-town locations. When its former parent, Borders US, launched in the UK in 1998 it started a land-grab of big stores, growing to a peak of nearly 80 stores.

Hodge said: "The out-of-town locations were an American idea that were never really suited to the UK."

Borders US sold its UK subsidiary to Risk Capital, the private equity firm of Luke Johnson, chairman of Channel 4, for £10 million in September 2007.

Hodge said: "Why would you drive five miles to sit and read a book in Starbucks inside Borders? It is just not practical."

Robert Clark, the senior partner at Retail Knowledge Bank, also points to a slump in sales per square metre at Borders UK stores over the past decade, although this can be partially explained by its shift towards larger stores.

Even allowing for the larger-than-average store sizes, Clark said: "Their sales densities look to be seriously low."

However, there is no doubt that the supermarkets and Amazon have inflicted damage on physical chains. While the big grocers typically focus on the best-seller charts in stores, the likes of Tesco and Asda have a huge online offer.

It is also true that not all booksellers are suffering. Nick Leitch, a director at Endless, which owns The Works, said: "Our like-for-like sales are up this year. Our business is performing pretty strongly, people are still spending money, but there is a flight to value. Kids' books are still going really well, as are food and drink books."

It is thought that Endless looked at Borders UK in the summer, before Hilco completed the MBO deal. The academic bookseller Blackwell is also understood to have delivered robust trading this year.

Overall, Clark firmly believes that if a bookseller has knowledgeable staff and tailors its offer to the local community, such as events or store managers buying a proportion of the books on offer, then there is still a place on the high street for physical booksellers.

Certainly, if Borders does collapse, Waterstone's and WHSmith, the sector's two biggest bookselling chains, could benefit from extra capacity on the market or picking some of its weaker rivals' best sites.

As Clark says: "The in-town browsing market is embedded in the consumer's psyche, compared to the out-of-town offer."

No doubt high-street booksellers are under pressure, but they look set to remain a fixture on the high street for some time to come.

- INDEPENDENT