Friday, February 25, 2011

my two cents on borders

I was struck by the generous tone taken by most independent booksellers this month as they reflected on the excruciating demise of the great and powerful Borders. For the past couple decades, this chain set up shop close to and undersold many a fine neighborhood bookstore. When the victims caved, the response was “business is business!”

Dick Noyes, one of the titans of twentieth-century bookselling, operated the wonderful Chinook Bookstore in Colorado Springs until Borders (among other things) drove him out of business ten years ago. He was an exception to the group hug. His “spare me the crocodile tears, what goes around comes around” remark about Borders troubles was probably a truer representation of how many booksellers feel in their hearts. But we are an astoundingly nice profession and it would be mean to say it.

I vividly remember my first visit to Borders original store in Ann Arbor in the early eighties. I was a bookseller at Harry W Schwartz in Milwaukee, and we were both afraid and excited by the idea that a bookstore could be so big and carry so much. Their state of the art inventory system was years ahead of its time, and was actually a boon to many independents for awhile. But once Wall Street took notice it was all over, and the cascade of changing owners was farcical and devastating. Corporate America never seems to learn that 20% profit margins and books don’t mix.

Other more knowledgeable observers have written convincing Borders post-mortems, exploring all the various angles and could haves and should haves. I won’t presume to add anything.

Except this: I think the writing was on the wall when Borders dis-empowered their managers and individual stores around 2002, forcing local inventories, merchandising and community outreach to conform more closely to national display packages that could be sold (if that’s the word) to publishers.

For short term gain and the illusion of cost control, they sacrificed the competitive edge that always made them seem hipper and cooler than their bland competitor, Barnes & Noble. Many Borders stores seemed more like nimble, quirky, interesting indies than cookie-cutter chain shops.

Exhibit A: the excellent Madison, Wisconsin University Avenue store, which I was dumbfounded to see on the chopping block. In its heyday this store was the intellectual hub of one of the top university communities in the US. The “official” University Bookstore had thrown in the towel, collapsing its once stellar trade book department into a tiny corner room on the sweatshirt floor. The University Avenue Borders took up the slack.

Manager Michael Chaim, one of the smartest people in the book industry, remade his front of store to perfectly follow (and make) the reading tastes of this brainy neighborhood. For instance, I’ve never seen a better, more thoughtful “New University Press” section in any big bookstore. (Yes, I’m biased. But how well a store represents the university presses is a quality control issue to me.)

Eventually, local display and merchandising decisions became mandates, and the power to create the face the store would show to the community moved from someone who lived there to some suit in Ann Arbor who was able to score a few extra co-op dollars with national marketing campaigns.

Surely Michael wasn’t the only clever manager with the commitment and talent to customize his store. I wonder how many of them met the same fate.

In short order, mandates to merchandise were succeeded by mandates to reduce inventory. Like a farmer eating his seed, a bookseller who cuts stock too deeply inevitably reaps fewer sales. Core backlist was once the crown jewel of the Borders idea, but in recent years these books came roaring back to publisher warehouses for credit that would help pay the bills on new books.

Perhaps internet booksellers have killed the “we have everything” business model for physical stores. But the across the board inventory reductions seemed more like the slashing republican approach to budget cuts than a thought out plan to cut some sections while investing more strongly in other, more promising ones. If this happened, I missed it.

After all the havoc unleashed by the rise and fall of this chain on smaller booksellers who have invested their working lives in the profession, it’s hard to feel completely generous. There’s a little Dick Noyes in me saying “good riddance!”

But the net effect of the Borders implosion is bad for anyone who cares about books.

For one thing, there will be nearly 20,000 booksellers unemployed.

For another, it will leave many major cities and smaller communities without a single bookstore.

And it will concentrate power more strongly in the hands of the last chain standing.

There are some grounds for hope. The Canadian bookselling landscape has been dominated for over a decade by one retailer, which eats up a sizeable chunk of the book market. Yet there is a surprisingly robust array of interesting, wily independents across Canada who continue to survive and surprise.

Who knows what the next five years will look like? But I’m guessing booklovers will have three big choices:

- The internet retailers, increasingly linked to social networking buzz and digital media, will get better and better, offering more choices in more convenient formats. Fighting this is pointless.
- The remaining chain will decide to either re-commit to a physical book inventory, or will become a device salon with a few physical books as decorative backdrop.
- Independent, free-thinking booksellers will persevere in their calling as they always have: tailoring their stores to their communities; being responsive to but a step ahead of the market; hosting authors and events with love and imagination; and staffing the stores with smart booksellers who can answer a simple question like “what do you recommend?” with confidence and enthusiasm.

I’m betting on window three.


  1. Great post. I went to UMich. in the early 1980s and I remember being thrilled by such a big store where one could sit for hours, reading.

  2. Thanks for your encouraging words, and for what you do ... I'm right there in front of window # 3. Having recently begun a column and blog on book groups, I recognize the intensity of readers' emotions from and toward what they're reading. Sure, the 'nooks' and crannies of electronic reading are great for quick searches during our meetings, but it's the books these folks love to hold, fold and share.

  3. Reading this from West Coast Australia. I am very impressed by your sensitive and well informed view of the current scenario. Well done indeed. Best wishes. Harry Schmitz,

  4. I used to own a specialty bookstore that is located less than a mile from the Borders on University Ave in Madison. Michael and his staff were always excellent neighbors. They would send customers to us, attend our author events and generally be supportive and kind. The staff there were booklovers. I've been in many a Borders where the staff was lacking in knowledge and passion. Not the case at Borders West in Madison. I am sad to see it go.

  5. Great post! This gives hope to a future publisher!

  6. The business has changed so much over the past 25+ years, beginning when the publishers began importing their sales managers from soap companies. I work at B&N and what I've forgotten about the book business my co-workers will never know. And the sad thing is, THEY DON'T CARE - I tell them about the days when Doubleday, Bantam, Ballantine, Delacorte, Crown and Knopf were PUBLISHERS and not imprints of Random House, that I used to see a Dell rep, a Bantam Rep, a Fawcett Rep, a Pocket Books rep, a Simon & Schuster rep, a Viking rep, a Putnam rep...and you want to know why I feel like A DINOUSAUR????

  7. The cookie cutter approach to culture in this country and now out in the world at large is obviously doomed. It makes me hopeful. There's a void that might be filled by something real, community-oriented, and accessible to everyone.