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?
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.