Readers Without Borders

Photo by Gerard's World, CC by-NC-ND 2.0

Today* I heard the news that last ditch efforts to find a buyer to keep the Borders chain open had failed, and that, pending judge approval, the chain could begin liquidating its remaining stores by the end of this week, and be but a memory by the end of September.

I know how this news makes me feel, but I don’t know for sure what it portends. The conventional wisdom is that it signals the death of all brick-and-mortar bookstores; perhaps it’s indicative of the eventual death of paper books. Maybe the death of reading. I’m not so sure any of that’s true. Have we ever, as an economy, been able to support more than a couple big box book chains? And to what extent is the reputed mismanagement of Borders a statement on some other chain’s future?

For most of my life** the early part of my life, these enormous stores didn’t exist–at least, not near me. It was right around the beginning of the 1990s, before I’d ever heard of Barnes and Noble or Borders, that a BookStop opened near my house. It was the biggest bookstore I’d ever seen, and it had the best prices, too!

I now realize that the fantastic prices the large conglomerates can offer come by way of a monkey’s paw. The little stores can’t match the buying power of the big guys, so they can’t match their prices. Then the little stores go out of business and the big guys grow ever more powerful. But this was one of many things I didn’t understand, and as a college student, I was just thrilled to be able to buy more books.

BookStop was quickly replaced by BookStar, which, as far as I could tell, was the same chain with a new name. When BookStar was replaced by Barnes & Noble, I was leery at first of this green, hoity-toity upstart. Until they doubled the size of what was already a mind-bogglingly big bookstore.

I’ve read a ton of people blogging elegiacally about how well-organized Borders was in its heyday, how knowledgable the staff was, and how responsive the chain was to its customers. I never really knew that Borders. Based on little more than the sources of these posts, I suspect this may have been a northeastern thing, and that by the time the chain spread into South Florida, it was more or less a clone of Barnes & Noble. I considered Borders to be Barnes and Noble’s stuffier cousin with taller bookshelves, but was grateful for its existence nonetheless because their genre selection had subtle differences, and so my own options were amplified.

In the years since, we haven’t just lost most of our independent bookstores. Mall bookstores have also more or less become a thing of the past. Barnes and Noble has opened some new stores around me, while others have folded, but Books-A-Millions seem to be sprouting like dandelions. Why would somebody be opening new box stores if the market’s so terrible? Maybe the market’s not quite as terrible as we think.

And what about how this affects writers? I’ve seen so many takes on what the changes in the book industry mean for writers. That it’s a terrible thing because the big houses have less money to spend and are looking for sure winners. That it’s a wonderful thing because electronic publishing is knocking down the barriers to publishing for everyone. That it’s a terrible thing because, while more people may get published, the idea of making enough from your sales to make a living is dying by the wayside. It’s enough to make my head spin. Is this an evil omen? An expected casualty of a positive shift?

Beats me, so I have no choice but to fall back on simpler metrics. I’ll now have one fewer option when it comes to buying books.

That can’t be anything but a bad thing.

* I don’t reckon days the way most people do. By my way of thinking, a day begins when I get out of bed, and ends when I get back into it. The clock is an irrelevant modern contrivance.

** Crap. It just dawned on me that I’m older than I realized.

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7 Responses to Readers Without Borders

  1. Tom Emmons says:

    What is happening with electronic publishing reminds me of what has happened in the recording industry. The old industry distributors are losing revenue, but the artists are getting empowered. And yet to make any money from your stuff can be a challenge as well.

    Some developments have been turning the tide recently for music. Bandcamp.com and Reverbnation.com are a couple of good examples. They do take a cut, but the artist gets much more out of it, and anyone can enter the fray–at their own risk, of course.

    Perhaps more electronic publishing sites for literature will empower the independent writers as has happened in the music industry.

    Brick and mortar booksellers need to get people through their doors somehow. I’d much rather pour over stacks of real books than perform a search online. My wife tried e-books, but prefers the actual feel of reading a paper book.

    But then again, my first job was as a shelver in our local library. I might be biased in that regard.

  2. Joe says:

    I wonder what happened to Russell Duhon’s short fiction e-press idea. I kind of suspect that “real” readers aren’t as likely to take a chance on independently distributed novels as listeners may be to take a chance on independent music, because the level of commitment is higher: an ebook can take so much of your time to read, and it would suck to find something that looked good over the course of the first few pages and then went south. I suspect listeners are less in need of someone to sift through the independent offerings than readers may be. With short fiction, though, the time commitment is lower. On the other hand, I’m not sure how many readers read short fiction anymore.

  3. Kira says:

    In my opinion, anywhere that sells books is a good place. Borders was my employer until April of this year, and I enjoyed their mentality as a bookseller to an extent, but it wasn’t what I wanted out of my book-buying experience, personally. I think we’re moving towards smaller, niche businesses, kind of a return to the old ways. At least, I hope. 🙂

  4. Joe says:

    Back in the old days, though, little bookstores made up for their small inventory by being virtually the only place you could order books. How do small stores compete against Amazon?

  5. Kira says:

    In my very very tiny little experience, there is still something to be said for a) cheap used books at your fingertips and b) browsing and finding something you didn’t expect to find — there’s a immediacy with a physical bookstore that (aside from ebooks) Amazon can’t compete with. But I think the only way it’s REALLY going to work for small bookstores is being super-specialized, having a core customer base, and hand-selling great books, old and new. My best sales come from recommending things to unsure customers. And then they come back for “more of the same.” I think there’s nothing you can offer the ones who browse, take a picture of a book, and then go buy it on Amazon for $10 less. They’re looking for a deal, not a find.

  6. Joe says:

    Oh, I can see a niche for used bookstores.

    The funny thing about the “snap a picture and order it later” phenomenon, which I mentioned in the post about bookstores charging for signings, is that I actually do the very opposite! I walk into bookstores and pull up Amazon on my phone, so that I can see my wishlist and buy things off of it. Until last week, it never occurred to me that there was some bookstore employee somewhere seeing me do that and thinking I was a jerk–especially on those visits where I didn’t find anything on my list!

  7. David Flor says:

    The whole “big bookstore trounces little store” premise is central to the movie “You’ve Got Mail”. 🙂

    This isn’t much different than music stores. If you ask me where to buy a music CD, I can’t think of a place within twenty miles where I can buy a physical album.

    Now, if you want to buy “vintage” material that’s a whole other matter. Music stores like “Yesterday and Today” still exist, catering to those strange folks that still like to buy albums on vinyl and have a means by which to actually play them. Y&T has become more of an antique store than a music store, catering to collectors more than people that just want to hear music.

    And if you are a collector, it’s sometimes easier to find that special 1st Ed. book on eBay than to drive to a store at the far end of town and hope they have it.

    To be quite honest, I don’t remember the last time I’ve been in a bookstore and actually bought a book. But I admit I’m not as much a reader as you are.

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