Customers as Vultures

Photo by Stuart Nisbett

Lisa and I headed out to the Borders in Winter Park today for the second time to see what bargains we could find. In all the talk about how sad it is to lose another brick and mortar bookstore, and all the talk about how Borders was mismanaged into oblivion, there’s been a bit of an awkward (or maybe it just seems that way to me) silence from writers and such about the other side of the liquidation equation–the shoppers snatching up bargains at the liquidation.

I asked on Google+ the other day if anybody knew whether authors would receive royalties for books bought at the liquidation–or whether the numbers would show up on Bookscan–but nobody who knew replied. The whole point of liquidation is to pay off at least some of the chain’s debt, right? Wouldn’t this clearly include its debt to its suppliers, in the form of publishers? (And don’t bookstores generally pay for books up front and then remainder them for a refund if they don’t sell? And if publishers sent books out to Borders without this payment in the hopes that things would get better, isn’t that kind of on them?)

If authors aren’t receiving royalties, then this is clearly an ethical issue for me at least. Absent any clear knowledge on that count, though, there’s some good deals to be had, and when you read as much as my family and I do, that’s not something to sneeze at. Today we picked up a handful of titles each, including, for me, a YA science fiction novel I’d never heard of. So worst case scenario, if it turns out to be good I’ll at least let folks who read this site know about it, and try to repay any karmic debt that way.

There’s one group of people who aren’t being silent when it comes to the shoppers at the liquidation, though: Border’s employees. On Twitter and in various articles I’ve seen floating around I’ve seen comments comparing these folks (including me, I reckon) to vultures, and suggesting that there is some insincerity in their sudden interest in book-buying.

This is asinine on the face of it, but if it’s not as obvious to anybody else as it is to me, I’ll be happy to go into it.

The most recent example I’ve come across is this otherwise fascinating account of the botched decisions that led to the chain’s demise, which was linked to on Robert Bennett’s blog. Some tidbits from this article:

Amanda has been with the company for about a year, and the first day of liquidation was an exhausting experience for her. She says her store topped $50,000 in sales—an average day at the store had been somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,000 to $12,000. As many as 50 customers—none of whom she had ever seen before—were lined up outside before the store opened for the privilege of trashing the place.

A couple paragraphs down:

On the day that the liquidation started, “everyone was a little stressed-out and frustrated by the very rude customers.”

As I said, though, this article is not unique. I’ve seen similar sentiments a handful of times, as though the chain would still be around if these opportunists had ever shown an interest in buying books before now.

Here’s a hint: they did.

Is it really reasonable to think these people lining up to buy sackfuls of books aren’t readers? Paul Constant seems to think so, as even before the liquidation, he describes the transformation in their clientele from book lovers to “slithering, pre-offended armies of bargain hunters.” As if people who aren’t book lovers are hunting for bargains on . . . books. The people who drove that $50,000 in sales when the liquidation began are obviously book lovers; they’re just book lovers who were getting their books from somewhere else.

Constant spends 90% of that article detailing the reasons why that would be the case:

  • front of store displays that went from displaying the books the staff loved and believed in to hocking “mediocre crap” like magnets and such
  • low employee morale as “increasingly bitter” employees felt insulted by the main office
  • dwindling stock diversity
  • management pushing Border’s Plus cards on customers as late as mid-July with the reassurance that even if the chain went under, it would last until Christmas at least (As it happens, today is the last day those cards will be honored.)
  • management that no longer cared about employee hand-selling

In light of all this, why should anybody have been shopping at Borders instead of someplace else?

(As an aside, I’m not sure that the mid- to late-nineties were any halcyon days either, given Constant’s description of his colleagues as a confederation of hedonists partying all the time and showing up at work hung-over. It sounds like it may have been a wonderful place to work as a twenty-something, but that doesn’t make it a good place to shop.)

I don’t blame folks who had a stake in Border’s livelihood being bitter. But by all accounts, the people to blame are the folks who made bad decision after bad decision in Ann Arbor, not the folks lining up to pick up a few cheap books in this bad economy. Blaming your customers–or your non-customers, as the case may be–is always a loser’s strategy.

As one of the teeming masses over there today, let me tell you why I wasn’t hitting up Borders every day. First and foremost, there wasn’t a Border’s store within an hour’s drive of me. There are two Books-A-Millions and four Barnes and Nobles that are closer (and, for a few years, a Virgin Megastore). Second . . . actually, there is no second. That’s pretty much it. I had been in that store before once in a  while, and certainly never saw any reason to believe that it was better than the other mega-chains or worth the extra drive. I appreciated that they had a slightly different selection, so I went there occasionally just to see what I might find that I couldn’t at the closer stores, but I wouldn’t say they had a better selection.

Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate a good bit of carrion once in a while, of course.


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8 Responses to Customers as Vultures

  1. Tom Emmons says:

    It seems to me that there are plenty of reasons as well, but I hadn’t heard how bad it had gotten. There isn’t/wasn’t a Borders anywhere near us. To be fair, though, I can only think of one surviving bookstore here, Copperfields. They involve the community to a great scale, bringing people in the door with events and promotions. They are out there actively marketing. If such a small chain is the only one to survive here, maybe what they are doing is indicative of what it takes to survive in these electronic edition times.

  2. Smitty says:

    As a family, we split our money fairly evenly between the Borders and the BN that are basically caddy-corner in our town, but almost all of my dollars went to BN. I hated the parking, employees, and selection at Borders.

  3. Joe Iriarte says:

    I think you’re right, Tom. In this day and age, bookstores need to really make a big deal of what they can offer that websites can’t match–the human experience. And I don’t just mean signings, although signings are definitely a part of that. But release parties for anticipated books maybe, or open mic nights . . . they need to be centers of literary culture.

  4. When I lived in Tulsa, I loved the Borders there and didn’t really like the B&N. But, when I moved to Orlando, the B&N on Sand Lake became my new favorite. I went to Borders a few times, even though it was 4 miles further away, but the employees were always rude to us and the store was always dirty. THAT’s why I didn’t go there.

  5. Joe Iriarte says:

    The B&N on Sand Lake is nice. Though it’s far away, I think my favorite around here is the one on Colonial. And I love love LOVE the feature on that lets you see which stores have a certain book in stock. That is made of pure win. (Which is relevant since this article points to lack of a web strategy as a factor in Borders’ decline.)

  6. David Flor says:

    The only Borders I can think of near me (the one near Dadeland) has been a disaster every time I’ve been there. And they *never* did things like book signings, not to mention it has the worst coffee shop of any bookstore in the city. And the employees there didn’t even know their own store.

    The B&N is always full of people, there is never an empty table at the Starbucks-branded coffee shop, the people that work there know their stuff and they get loads of authors and even musicians to show up and do signings and such. Heck, the last time I was there they had Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter playing music from her album (she looked great, if you’re wondering…).

    I admit I don’t remember the last time I purchased a book inside a bookstore but B&N has been all about atmosphere for me, and my experiences there have led me to buy books and other items outside of the store (granted, I bought them at Amazon, but that’s due to convenience).

  7. Joe Iriarte says:

    Oh boo, David! You acknowledge that B&N is giving you something you appreciate. You’ve got to support businesses that do that! B&N has a website too!

  8. David Flor says:

    Let me clarify that I don’t remember the last time I bought anything, but when I say “convenience” it’s more like “buying it at a time I have the money to do so.” Oh there’s a lot of things I could buy inside B&N… I’m just broke every time I go in there. 😛

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