I grew up in a household where the book was valued, not only as a form of entertainment but as a friend. A book was something that could transport you to faraway lands and worlds. A book could teach you things you’d never learn in a classroom. The author was respected for the work they did, even if you didn’t always agree with what they said. After all, back in the days of Remington portable typewriters and IBM Selectrics, you knew how dedicated they had to be just to write the book.
But it went beyond that. Books were affordable then, even taking into account inflation, rising prices, etc. Publishers at least seemed to be better gatekeepers and they promoted books. Newspapers had book review sections that were sections and not just a page or two in the entertainment section of the Sunday paper and they were filled with reviews not only from syndicated reviewers but local reviewers as well.
Something happened as I grew up. Part of it was, I’m sure, the fact that I did grow up and I started looking at the world through slightly — okay occasionally very — jaded eyes. Part of it was also the changing in economics and demands by big box booksellers that publishers change the way they dealt with bookstores. And then, of course, there were the big box booksellers themselves. They came in and pushed the smaller indie bookstores out of business. Those small stores simply couldn’t negotiate the same deals with publishers that the big box stores could.
I was like so many back then, entranced by the larger selection of books. Enthralled because I could buy my music at the same time I bought my reading material. Then they brought in coffee shops. Oh my, I’d died and gone to reader heaven. Coffee and books!
But, like so many business ventures that look to be initially very successful, these big box booksellers made mistake after mistake. They over-expanded. Every mall had either a Barnes & Noble or a Borders (or similar big bookstore). Almost always, you’d find their competition opening a store within a mile or two radius. While there might not have been a bookstore on every corner, they saturated the market and still kept building.
Then there’s the change in how they ordered titles for each store. Initially, store managers and district managers were allowed to decide which titles to stock. Sure, the “best sellers” were stocked nationwide, as were titles where the publishers purchased endcaps etc. But the stores were allowed to also buy based on their market. So, if I walked into a Borders or B&N in Dallas and then took a jet and look at the same store in Boston, I’d find a different selection. Why? Because interests and buying patterns vary from region to region.
But just as some marketing guru has told grocery stores to put in long aisles with no middle break, someone told bookstores that they could save money and sell more books by changing their buying patterns. Local buying control was moved to regional and then to national. Not only that, but bookstores were suddenly being told to remove titles from their shelves based not on how well that title is moving in the store or locally but based on how it is moving nationally. So, a book that could build a large following if left on the shelves long enough for word of mouth to build is removed after a week or two simply because it didn’t reach a certain level of sales determined by some bean counter in an office well removed from the sales floor.
A lot of stores also moved away from manning their staff with full-time employees to a roster of mainly part-time employees. It saved the company money by going that route because they didn’t have to pay as much in benefits, etc. But it all too often also led to a decline in customer service. I’ll never forget the day I went into a Border superstore across the street from my son’s high school. I wanted my coffee and book — remember, I’m a caffeine addicted book addicted writer — and was sure they’d have both. Well, they had the coffee. But they didn’t have the book, which happened to be the latest by David Weber. DW is a best selling science fiction writer. The book was new. Baen is not some new, never heard of publisher. So I checked the shelves. Nothing. I went to the new release table. Nothing. I found, after some searching, an employee. He’d never heard of the book or of DW, but he’d check their system. Nope. No book. Did I want to order it? Sure.
That’s when I fell down the rabbit hole and I’m not sure I ever climbed out. He couldn’t order the book for me because their system didn’t recognize it as a legitimate title. Five minutes later, the manager appears. Nope, can’t order it. Their system doesn’t recognize Baen as a legitimate publisher. Never heard of Simon & Schuster, Baen’s distributor. The manager only gets upset when I go to the stacks and produce DW’s previous books — almost all of them. No, they won’t call anyone for help. If I’m not happy, I can leave.
No, I haven’t fallen down the rabbit hole, I’m in the Twilight Zone. I’ve been thrown out of a bookstore because — gasp — I wanted to order a book.
Then came e-books and, in the following years, viable and affordable e-book readers or reliable free e-reader programs for our computers, smart phones, etc. Amazon, already seen as the bane of all things bookstore, brings out the Kindle. Barnes & Noble follows, later than they should but at least they followed, with the Nook. Borders played pretty much the same hand it did when it first tried to have an online presence. The first time I tried to order a book online from Borders imagine how surprised I was when I was redirected to Amazon. One one hand, Borders had been crying foul because Amazon was selling titles lower than anyone else. On the other, they are using Amazon as their online store. HUH? Finally, after who knows how large a loss, Borders pulled out of that agreement and, for awhile, they had no online presence at all. Then, finally, they were back and selling their own stock.
Enter e-books and the sound of crickets. Because that was all you’d get for a long time if you wanted to buy an e-book from Borders. They never came out with their own e-reader, instead opting to promote and sell other vendors’ readers in their stores. If you bought an e-book from Borders, you were buying it from KOBO. Again, too little, too late, especially when you have upper management making like ostriches and burying their heads in the sand.
Now Borders is facing, as I predicted months ago, having to auction off all their assets. Their stalking horse bid has withdrawn the last I heard. The deadline for a sale of the company, in whole or in part, is today. The last I read about the process was that the liquidators have been named as the new stalking horse. If this is the case and if nothing happens to change things, we will soon be without Borders Books. As much as I’ve hated what the company has done, I still have fond memories of the stores when they first opened. I still believe fervently in the importance of having bookstores. I’d much rather pay a little more for a book that I can buy locally. It helps the local economy for one. But there is still something about going into a store and browsing the titles, finding a book I might not have heard about and flipping through it. I’ve bought so many books, and found so many new authors to follow, by doing that. It’s not something you can do with Amazon or Google books, etc.
I’m going to put on my rose colored glasses and hope something happens to save some, if not all, of the stores. I want that for the employees and their families and I want it for folks like myself who still enjoy the bookstore experience. But it will only work if the new owners learn from the past and do all they can not to repeat the mistakes made by Borders’ management.
If Borders is forced into liquidation, hopefully their fate will be a warning for other bookstores, especially the chains. I do not want to see bookstores disappear any more than I want to see physical books disappear.
Cross posted to Mad Genius Club