Tuesday, July 26, 2011

End Of An Era

Well, Borders is soon to be no more as we have known it. Much as the bookstore industry in general.

It was not quite twenty years ago when I visited my first super-bookstore. A B&N in upstate New York on my way back from a Vermont mini-vacation in 1992. Back then, B.Dalton and Waldenbooks were the most proliferated book retailers in the areas of the country where I lived before moving to Long Island. You could often count on both those stores being in any shopping mall. They were essentially the same place: they sold the same books, were divided in pretty much identical categories, only the signs were different. Waldenbooks was dressed up a tad more with paned glass windows on the facade and oak shelves. B.Dalton was perhaps more willing to offer discounts and specials. It really came down to which nuance of retail atmosphere you preferred and I recall preferring B.Dalton because their selection was slightly larger--but not quite everything that was available. That is where the superstores came into the picture.

Bookstores used to be places where you'd peruse titles and then purchase your selection, to dive into at the food court over a beverage or hurry home to read on the couch. You never saw people sitting on the floor. Coffee? Huh? There was only one place I ever knew that offered such things in a bookstore. The Upstart Crow in Seaport Village in San Diego. I loved the place. Went there a lot during my years at SDSU. But I thought of the Crow as a specialty place, not a norm. But that changed in '92 when I walked into a B&N for the first time. Being a bibliophile, I thought it was the most amazing wonderful thing that there could be a bookstore so big -- and with chairs! COMFY CHAIRS WITH HIGH BACKS! There were so many books and so many categories! Sure, there were Crown Books stores, but their inventory was discount and usually odds and ends. This B&N superstore had new and current releases! Still, there wasn't a store like this near where I lived, so again I considered it a freak of nature, another novelty in a place associated with vacation, not the real world. The most appealing aspect was the diversity of special interest categories of books that neither B Dalton nor Waldenbooks carried.

Then I returned to California and discovered Borders and found myself there every time I wanted to shop for books. For me, it was a book store designed with a reader's sense. When I was assigned to Wright-Patterson AFB (I was on active duty at the time), I found my personal favorite Borders ever in Dayton, Ohio. I spent many evenings and weekend afternoons there. When my son would visit in the summer time, we'd go to the Borders there just about every day, after a movie or miniature golf. When I planned my terminal leave trip to Europe, it was mostly in the Borders cafe. I first started to enjoy 'world music' at that same Borders. Some of my best memories are associated with that store. My Borders in Dayton was a hangout where I could find what I liked to read.

Of course, things change. The economy and technology have everything to do with the demise of Borders and the certain drastic change coming to B&N. Personally, I have always found B&N less personable than my experience with Borders. Maybe it's just me, but I always found Borders employees to seem more like real book lovers, whereas B&N seems like a place that hires anyone who wants the job. I could be wrong in general, but my experience has been that. Anyway, technology was inevitably going to change how we read. People love gadgets and the convenience of them. The economy's downturn forced the issue: It is simply smarter for publishers to market a product that does not require very much money up front to produce, does not require much space to store, and isn't wasted if it doesn't sell every copy. As a publisher, I love e-books. So does the public, mainly because the market has begun to force prices way down. Unfortunately for the bookstores, the traditional model, people began using bookstores like libraries.

A store cannot stay in business if people use the products in the store without buying them. It's very simple. Also, when there is an alternative that is more convenient, less expensive, and technologically fun and hip, the traditional model is doomed. As Borders and B&N did to the independents and chains before them, the digital marketplace has done to them. Amazon was the first very clear sign of what was to come. My personal vision of the bookstore of the future is this -- and I believe we will see this within five years (or less): The remaining book superstores will exist but in an altered form. Customers will have access to about a third of what these stores offer now. There will be a cafe, cashiers, nick-nack and gift area, and maybe magazines. However, there will be no massive floor of shelves with physical books on hand. Instead, there will be numerous computer stations. The only actual books in the store will be the single samples of bestselling or popular titles. Customers will instead peruse the online catalogue and select their purchases there. The remaining space of the store will be the production area, filled with Esso machines or the like, and your book will be printed while you wait (if you want it printed, and I believe people will still want printed books). You can enjoy a tea or coffee while you wait. This is the bookstore on the close horizon. Prices will be lower, no teenagers will be sitting on the floor in the aisles, the bookstore will be relevant again.

What we must point out is the irony of it all. The superstore model that wiped out the model before it actually included its own destruction in its very design: the library atmosphere encouraged people not to buy product.

As much as I loved my favorite Borders stores, and have shopped at B&N, as a publisher I have embraced the digital model of selling books. The digital world has allowed me, a small press guy, to compete with the big guys. Believe me, getting my product onto the shelves in the superstores cost me more in schmoozing sales reps and ineffective promotional costs than it did to produce the physical book. And forget the small stores, for I have never encountered a more sour and unpleasant lot of human beings in the retail world than owners/managers of indie or used bookstores. Not all, but unfortunately enough that it is a fair characterization, with a few exceptions (like Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego who are always friendly, and the Coliseum Bookstore in Manhattan, to name a few). If I am able to market product for little to zero cost, I can drop my prices and do not need to be in any store. This is the new model, and the new era to come.

In the end, it doesn't change the content.

So, farewell Borders. You will be missed.

(I hope this wasn't too rambling, I had to write it in two sessions several hours apart...)

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