Sunday Salon: On the Border(s), in a changing bookstore climate






 The Sunday 
Salon.com

Some time in the mid-1990s, the way I shopped for books changed. Borders Books and Music opened their first store in the Memphis area. Just inside the Germantown
city limits, it was located at Carrefour along Kirby Parkway, between the Poplars (Poplar Avenue and Poplar Pike), I’d never seen a bookstore that offered its variety of titles and genres – and it was a five-minute walk from the apartment I lived in at the time! It wasn’t long before I became a regular shopper there, and it became hard to fathom that I’d once been content with mall bookstores. The store was always bustling but rarely felt crowded, and you didn’t feel like a loser hanging out there on Saturday night.

I haven’t been to my first Borders in nearly nine years – since I moved to California – but I’ve shopped in plenty of other ones, and it’s remained my favorite of the big bookstores. I was excited when a new Borders – the first “real” bookstore in Simi Valley – opened not long before I moved here. Every now and then I’d read something about some business challenge they were facing at the corporate level, but it seemed unlikely that they wouldn’t pull through. And although the range of selection in the stores seemed to be changing a bit – more non-book merchandise, a little less quantity and variety in the books themselves – there didn’t seem to be much for the average customer to worry about.

The average customer, therefore, was probably taken by surprise when Borders filed for Chapter 11 (reorganization) bankruptcy this week and released a list of 200 stores slated for closing. Those of us who follow the book business a bit more closely were probably less shocked, but not necessarily any less saddened. I checked out the closure list (sortable version, via the Wall Street Journal) and was relieved to see that “my” Borders will stay open, but it will soon be the only one in the county, and that’s bittersweet.

Meg’s Borders isn’t closing either, but she’s still sad about the company’s troubles:

“I started my part-time shifts (at Borders) with the idea that I would work there until I graduated from college and had to seek out full-time, career-related employment. Well, I got a full-time job. In 2007, I was hired as an assistant editor at the newspaper where I still work and write. But when the time came to break ties with Borders, offering myself fully to the paper that was my ‘big girl job,’ I just couldn’t do it. The idea of leaving the bookstore was unfathomable…More than anything, I just looked forward to being there. The smell of fresh books, stripped open from heavy palates, was intoxicating….In our town, which has no other bookstore, Borders is the epicenter of life. I didn’t want to leave. When I visit the store now and see many familiar faces, I feel a jolt of sadness and whimsy for life back at the bookstore.”

Unlike my town, and Meg’s, some towns do have other bookstores. The LA TimesJacket Copy blog featured the soon-to-close Borders in Pasadena as its “Bookstore of the Week” on the day of the bankruptcy announcement, while its neighbor, the historic independent Vroman’s Bookstore, recognized that it would be affected too:

“Despite them being local competition, those of us here at Vroman’s are saddened. Any bookstore closing is a loss for the community; our thoughts go out to the booksellers who find themselves without jobs, the customers who find themselves without their usual bookstore, and of course the publishers. Some of our current employees came from a Borders background, so we can attest to the excellence of their staff, and we wish them the best.
On the other hand, Vroman’s has been here for 116 years, and we plan to keep that up. We’re very sad to see Borders go, but we’re also excited for the future. We’re excited to have those customers who have been displaced by the loss of Borders discover our store – just a few blocks from the Lake St. location – and all we have to offer!”

ElleintheCity, who works in publishing, also notes the ripple effects of losing bookstores:

“Let me tell you about a woman I met in a focus group a few years ago. She talked about how she typically bought 4-5 books a month when her local bookstore was next to her grocery store. When the store, an independent, went out of business, she had no regular place to go for books. Her estimated number of books purchased after the closure was 8-10 per year…
Books aren’t like groceries. If your supermarket closes, you find another one. But when a bookstore closes, customers learn to do without. Sure, there is the must have book that comes along that causes a bookstore visit, but when the store is out of the way, maybe it becomes less of a priority…You can’t argue that the fewer outlets there are for books, the fewer books are sold. We lose customers, but more importantly, we lose readers.”

Granted, there are still bookstores to be found. Borders is NOT closing ⅔ of its stores, and Barnes and Noble seems to be holding on well enough. And if you are losing a Borders, you may be gaining an opportunity to discover a nearby independent bookstore. However, while I’m an IndieBound affiliate and all for supporting indie bookstores, I should note that they’re not all equal;not all indies offer the wide selection of a Vroman’s or a Chaucer’s, or the carefully-curated inventory of tiny Portrait of a Bookstore. Some indies are genre specialists (e.g. mystery/crime fiction, children’s books), while others sell a seemingly random mix of new and used books; they may not be interchangeable with Borders for the more general-interest reader, or for those who find searching in used bookstores frustrating (confession: that’s me, unless the used bookstore is Housing Works).

Still, for those of us who love the browsing and discovery, the bookstore experience is irreplaceable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation with a bookstore cashier, as I did in Kramerbooks last summer:

“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. That’s usually when I have the best luck finding things” (as I pay for three or four new additions to TBR Purgatory)

The Borders store-closing sales started this weekend – I think I’ll be hitting the one up in Oxnard today. It’s too late to save them, but it may help one of the others. It’s a long weekend in the USA. Will you be getting yourself to a bookery and supporting bookstores in the way that helps them most – buying some books? Clearly, this is not the time to take their continued presence for granted.

Photo sources: Borders.com Store Selector (stores #114 and #589), Vroman’s Bookstore Blog, The Other Day At Portrait (Portrait of a Bookstore’s blog)

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