17 February 2011

My love/hate relationship with big box booksellers

Not Borders.
Borders, the bane of so many small, independent bookstores has gone into full meltdown. Filing for bankruptcy this week, Borders plans to shutter most of its stores. I wouldn't be surprised if this were just the prelude to end of the chain's final demise.

Like many of you, my relationship with big box booksellers has been confusing to say the least. Having grown up in the far suburbs of Minneapolis the nearest bookstore (that I knew of) was a pitiful B. Dalton at Northtown Mall about 30 minutes from my home. I didn't know it was pitiful at the time. I loved the place. But in contrast to the big boxes that would emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that little B. Dalton was indeed pitiful. (Of course in retrospect the mall itself was, and probably still is, pitiful as well, but it was like Shangri-La to a kid from the sticks.)

Then in college I was exposed to independent bookstores in Minneapolis like Odegard Books and Baxter Books. And of course there was the wonderful (and new to me) world of used bookstores. The Book House in Dinkytown was a particular favorite. But then sometime around 1989 or so I went to my first Barnes and Noble in Roseville. Fifty thousand square feet of books. I couldn't quite believe how much fun it was.

Not long after this I began to understand the socio-economic-geo-politico-david-goliath implications of big box retailers in general and booksellers in particular. The two arguments most often heard from the independents were that the independents offered much better customer service and that the big boys would have a homogenizing effect on book publishing.  No doubt the big guys have had an impact on publishing but I have a hard time believing too much in the homogenizing horrors that were predicted. My access to small presses and esoteric books has never been better. (Of course that is thanks to the Internet, which has its own set of issues.)

And as for the smaller guys having better customer service, that hasn't necessarily been true in my experience. In fact, in late 1999 I took an evening job at the very same Barnes and Noble that I first walked into a decade earlier. It turned out to be an amazing experience. Not only did I love working in a bookstore, but I was really impressed with the book knowledge of my co-workers. We really knew our books. Workers had specialities for sure and weren't necessarily experts at everything, but it was truly wonderful how well our in-store network of knowledge worked for the customer.

This still doesn't mean that I am a total fan of big box booksellers, but they have been really helpful over the years. When I moved to Honolulu (sight unseen) in 1995, I was definitely missing the familiarity of my life back on the mainland. The one spot in town that made me feel at home was the Borders. It was a giant book oasis in a town that had pretty awful small bookstores. The fact that it was within spitting distance of the beach and gorgeous Pacific Ocean didn't hurt it much either.

Over the years I gradually moved away from the big boxes favoring either small bookshops, or more often second hand bookshops. And when I do favor the big boxes these days I much prefer Barnes and Noble. I also prefer Barnes and Noble online over Amazon. I like the fact the B and N is primarily about books as opposed to Amazon's we sell everything approach.

And let's face it, for those of us who can remember the lifestyle shopping center boom of the 1990s the demise of Borders can't be too much of a surprise. For those that don't know what I am talking about, retailing in the 1980s was all about the regional and sub-regional mall. Enclosed shopping centers with a few department store anchors linked together by chain stores. In the 1990s we started to see glorified and yuppified strip malls pop up. But instead of the mattress stores and beauty shops they had things like Borders, REI, Old Navy, Petco, Staples/Office Depot and even Tower Records. And the stores were big. And the Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Tower Records seemed to be less about buying and more about browsing, meeting friends, having coffee, and experiencing the product in the store.

The fun and abundance of these wonderfully big mega book stores seemed to go perfectly, and ironically, hand in hand with the tech boom of the '90s. Everything looked rosy, people were making money hand over fist, the tech companies taught us that life and work were supposed to be fun, fun, fun. And the stores were everywhere. Every suburb seem to have its own giant Borders or Barnes and Noble or both. I could never go into to one without thinking "who reads all these books?" I did, but I knew I wasn't in the majority. So how were these stores staying open?

The original tech boom quickly went bust because the thousands of Internet start-ups knew how to have fun but didn't know how to make money. Now that Internet commerce has come of age, the bricks and mortar stores that thought that abundance and fun, fun, fun would help save them are feeling the death blow from the Internet and perhaps the advent of the e-book.

So am I happy or sad that Borders is going belly up? I don't know. I would be greatly depressed if brick and mortar book stores, whether big or small, become too hard to find. But then there is a part of me that thinks that secondhand shops will never disappear. But who am I to try and predict the future? I do grieve the loss of Tower Records a few years back. Far worse than small bookstores, small record stores, especially those who carry classical music, have become harder to find than dinosaurs. Tower was the only game in town if you wanted to see rows and rows of classical CDs. Sigh. I really miss them. Buying classical music on iTunes is a bit of a joke and going to CD retailers on line makes it much harder to discover new and unique classical music.

Which puts me in mind of the human cost. Back when Tower was open here in DC there was a manager there, probably in his later 40s at the time who used to be fairly knowledgeable about classical music. After Tower disappeared, he reappeared at the big Borders here in town. I just saw him in there the other day and wondered how long his job would last. And where a fifty-something man, who had obviously made his life in retail would find his next job. Starbucks?

19 comments:

  1. I agree completely and have the same feelings. While I embrace the idea of the independent bookseller, the reality is that book-pimp Amazon has been the source that enabled me to find and purchase the obscure titles and out-of-print I wanted; apparently my needs were too time absorbing and unprofitable for the independent store. But despite all the gloom around the book selling business and the predictions for electronic "books", doesn't it seem there are more new conventional books in print than ever? __ The Devoted Classicist

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  2. I have mixed feelings about the big box stores too. While the much-lamented independents in the Twin Cities had some more interesting titles, I have seldom been in a better bookstore than the old Borders in Uptown (Minneapolis). Alas, apparently that kind of quality wasn't part of the corporate vision nationwide. Even now, a decent B&N stocks more titles than any independent ever did, although perhaps not in some areas dear to me, like poetry, lit crit, and classical music history. I have yet to buy a new book on line, but here we are still blessed with a couple very good B&Ns and a raft of excellent used bookstores, so I don't have to. [I have purchased CDs and printed music on line, so I'm not completely a localist.] Once in awhile I run across the bookmark from one of the many former independents here in town (Odegaard's, Hungry Mind, Savran's, A Brother's Touch, etc etc) and sigh a sad sigh.

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  3. unfortunately we only have a big chain store in my town chesterfield ,we had a wonderful indie store but it closed and now is a coffee shop shame they had great staff ,all the best stu

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  4. My experiences and feelings are similar to yours, Thomas (although I've never been lucky enough to work in a bookstore). Since Olsson's in Alexandria closed, I've become a frequent shopper at the nearby B&N, and I've almost always been able to find what I was looking for, but I've become increasingly disenchanted in the last few months. Just before Christmas, they gave over a huge chunk of their floor space to Nook demos and children's toys. I'd be surprised if books take up more than half of the floor space now. I don't begrudge them a few sidelines, especially if they help them stay in business, but it makes me wonder when is a bookstore no longer a bookstore? Thankfully, Northern Virginia has another indie store, as of just a couple of weeks ago, but it's tiny and will not be a place I can just pop into when I'm looking for something specific.

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  5. @Teresa, I've noticed that B&Ns vary enormously. We have one in a very hoity-toity mall which isn't even worth going into, for the reasons you mention about yours. Yet, the B&Ns in our central downtown and at least two in more strip-mall-like locations still remain fruitful places to shop for the serious reader.

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  6. I said on Twitter earlier today when we were discussing your post that this is really a no win situation - less options for book buyers, less business for publishers and less work for those in the retail trade as you point out. And as you wisely suggest, there are some parts of this country where the big box stores are the only or best options for book buying. And it looks like those might be some of the stores closing. I shop Indie by choice but I am still rooting for Borders to successfully reorganize themselves.

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  7. Sorry ..., one more comment: Expanding on your "they are everywhere" remark. I just went to the B&N website, and according to the search, my zip code is within 15 miles of 15 of their stores. And these are not small footprint stores. Honestly, no city can sustain that many bookstores, especially all from one company. As you say, who buys all those books? Still, in another sense, shouldn't I be celebrating that a major corporation thinks it's worthwhile to have more than a dozen stores within a half-marathon (or so) from me.

    Expanding on something I said above. There is a theory that the reason the Twin Cities currently has so many excellent used bookstores is that 15-35 years ago we had so many excellent independent new bookstores.

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  8. I, too, have a love-hate relationship with the big box stores. I love B&N's free 3 day shipping when i can't find what I'm looking for in the store. We used to have a great Borders in town, but then they moved a few miles north to a more upscale shopping area and completely lost their minds! (Or, their buyers!) They used to beat B&N hands-down on selection, but ever since their move, they've gone over to the B&N way of doing things -- 40 copies of the same book v. 40 different books. I agree with you - the second-hand stores ought to be secure for a long while yet.

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  9. I think this is a topic for anyone who identifies themselves as a reader. We have a Border's in our local neighborhood (possibly even the one Susan is talking about if she's in the Plano/Allen area!). Thankfully, it isn't slated for immediate closure, but I know it's only a matter of time. We also have a beautiful new independent store that just opened. I'm doing my best to support them, but I'm afraid the store is just too fancy and too big to have any staying power in the current economy and book marketplace.

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  10. I loved Borders and Barnes and Noble when I lived in the States so am very sad to hear this. They both offered home-schooling discounts which I was particularly grateful for at that time!

    The Borders stores closed here in the UK some time ago, but I do still miss the Bournemouth one terribly. It was the only place really to browse books like slightly less common craft and reference ones where a blurb online doesn't give you enough of an idea of whether it was something you wanted to buy and of course look at the classical music CDs. And I did also try to buy something too.

    Now, unless I'm lucky enough to be up in London, I order everything online. No secondhand shops left either in my area. Just charity ones which are useless for older books. Sad.

    Still ABE, Amazon, Book Depository and online small presses do a fantastic job so it's far from all doom and gloom. My very first proper job was in a bookshop though, and I too think of people who stayed working for bookshops - they certainly wouldn't find replacement jobs in libraries here in the UK!

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  11. TDC: I don't have the facts, but there does seem to be a lot of books swirling around out there.

    Stu: It is sad when the indies disappear.

    Steve: That old Uptown Borders was the first time I had ever been in Borders. Was it a franchise rather than a corporate store? It still felt rather independent. I wish we had Cheapo/Applause here in DC. That would soothe my soul to now end. A Brother's Touch! How could I forget about ABT? It played an such an important role in my high shool days. I think I am going to have to blog about it.

    Teresa: Olsson's seemed to have a building boom before they went belly up. I loved the one at National Airport and was so encouraged to see one in Crystal City. Alas, it was not to last. The Georgetown B&N is good I think.

    Steve: Is the Roseville(Har Mar) location still going strong? They even had a decent used section when I worked there.

    Frances: Subject of a Twitter discussion. How cool. (Still don't even know how to look at Twitters let alone do it myself.) I think you are right, urban areas will do okay, but many areas will be left with nothing.

    Steve: I love how many there are because it means I am rarely far from a book browsing opportunity. But I only buy maybe 10% of the time.

    Susan: One of the reasons I think the small guys may survive is that they aren't beholden to the profit seeking voraciousness of shareholders like the big guys are. Of course, the publishing industry is also beholden to shareholders so they small guys may get screwed anyway.

    Marianna: It is kind of amazing that people still have the audacity to open new stores. Good luck to them.

    Donna: You are so right about the online blurb not always being enough. Plus I just love making a day of book browsing/shopping. Can't do that online in a meaningful way.

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  12. I have big-box guilt -- I know I should patronize my indie bookstore more often, but I am constantly lured by the idea of saving money. There is an amazing independent bookstore in Austin called BookPeople which is better than any big-box store (just less coupons), and I try to go as often as I can -- sadly, it's about 90 miles away so I'm only there about 5-6 times a year.

    And ironically, wasn't there talk just a year or so ago about Borders buying out Barnes and Noble? What happened?

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  13. In answer to your questions: At last visit the HarMAr location was going strong, although the classical CD section was noticeably shrunk, but still OK. Just before Christmas the bookshelves shelves seemed a little picked over, but I was able to pick up a Whipple there.

    The Uptown Border's may have been a franchise. My understanding is that early branches tried to keep up the legendary standards of the original Border's in Ann Arbor (which was a good store). Things changed over the decades. If you haven't read about Border's employees on the blogoshere, do -- apparently they are treated like corporate drones who are there only to promote whatever marketing idiocy the suits have dreamed up that week - it's quite horrifying. With employees THAT unhappy, it's no wonder they aren't doing well.

    As for ABT, I think it outlived its usefulness. Early on, he performed a unique service, but as time went on, almost everything he offered was available in a friendlier atmosphere elsewhere (big boxes for books, and Shinder's for periodicals). The Unabridged bookstore in Chicago (a favorite destination) shows what could have been done. It still fulfills the function of providing a uniquely large selection of gay titles, but has expanded to be an excellent all-interest bookstore, with friendly competent staff. The loss to Twin Cities of Shinder's as an indie specializing in magazines and newspapers was HUGE [Although I think periodicals is a real strength at B&N.]

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  14. The same discussion, of course, applies to restaurants, clothing stores, car repair, grocery stores ... you name it. See the 3/50 Project. Try to shop local and independent when you can.

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  15. When I was in junior high I spent nearly every day (after school) at the mall, seated on the floor of B. Dalton reading book after book. Back in the day, funds were scarce so buying was a luxury. I have so many fond memories of B. Dalton.

    As a book lover, I'll go to a bookstore no matter what type of a store it is, but if I have the option to choose between two different kinds, say in a busy city, then I'll hit the indie every time. Indie booksellers are just more personable and seem to be more knowledgable about the books they offer. Also, I love the feel of an indie store. Usually they are crammed with books with stacks everywhere.

    We will be losing out Borders and in a town as large as mine, we will be feeling the pain as will all of those employees.

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  16. There are 4 Borders stores in my area and all are closing. Luckily for me we have just as many Barnes and Noble that are staying open. I live south of San Francisco which has probably hundreds of indie stores while down here in the South Bay we have very, very few. Unfortunately without the big box stores I don't have a local bookstore to go to. I'm going to make a conscious effort to not do the convenient thing and get books on Amazon. I'm going to drive a little out of my way and support one of the indies! P.S I really miss my local Tower store too. I had so many memories from that place of discovering new music and now it is gone!

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  17. I've been around long enough to remember all the book stores Borders drove out of town back when the first opened up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lots of excellent stores that just couldn't get the discounts a huge chain like Borders could.

    So I'm not feeling at all sorry for Borders.

    I am feeling sorry for those of use who like bookstores. I know many people live in areas where Borders or Barnes and Noble are the only game in town.

    Personally, I prefer small shops with a table in the front, full of books picked out by a buyer who knows books. Shops that feature books I've never heard of before, but have to read as soon as I look over the back cover. There's not many of those shops still around these days.

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  18. However you feel about the big boxes the reality for the staff is pretty awful. Borders UK went under just before Christmas 2009, the sales started and the crowds descended. It wasn't very nice to see - the last time I went the girl who served me was all but in tears.

    The thing is many of us really miss the big box we had. It was a great place to meet and in the early days a great place to buy books. Maybe Starbucks will start branching out into books and music - I just don't beieve that there isn't a market for decent sized shops with real people and browsable stock.

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  19. I totally understand the love/hate relationship. I want to stick up for the little indie bookstores but I admit, I love a big box bookstore. All those books under one roof, the cafe, the music, the book groups. It becomes quite the experience.

    Borders was my first big box bookstore experience. When they moved in to Dallas when I was living there I was like a kid in a candy store. I had always wanted to join a book group and sure enough they hosted several. I belonged to the same reading group for 14 years which is really quite something. So I'm sad to see them close.

    I'm in Austin now and we have some great indie bookstores which I try to visit as well as Half Price Books which I love but still I will miss Borders. I just liked having the choice.

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