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Worlds Without End Blog

Why Losing Borders Could be Good Posted at 9:48 PM by Rico Simpkins

icowrich

Borders Going out of BusinessWhen I was a kid, looking for books was a serious enterprise. We had our mall stores and our mom-and-pop bookshops, but the selection was limited to bestsellers (in the mall) or miles and miles of Harlequin romances (in used shops). For a treat, I’d get to go 20 miles out to the only sizable bookstore in town. Taylor’s Books was smaller than an average Barnes and Noble today, but back then it was enormous. They had a Dungeons and Dragons section that set my mouth watering, and the science fiction section spanned two whole rows (hey, I said it was big for THEN).

Not a library!There was only one problem. I was a kid, and I couldn’t buy everything I wanted. One thing a kid does have (in spades) is time. I would sneak a peek at the latest Stephen R. Donaldson book, only to get called out by an employee, who would say "this is NOT a library!" Chastened, I would put the book back, making a mental note to peruse it more briefly, later.

In the 90s, all that changed. Waves of new corporate bookstores, like Barnes and Noble and Borders, swooped in with larger inventories and new policies. People talked about how they served coffee, and gave customers places to sit. Their real advantage however was especially relevant to me:

They let you read books for as long as you wanted.

CoffeeLook, before you give me the speech about poor mom and pop (how are they going to pay their mortgage), let me just say that I kept going to those places… for years. The DO NOT READ signs were still up. There was still an absence of chairs. Taylors eventually put out a single pot of (stale) coffee, almost as if to say "there’s your stinking coffee, now shut up and shop with us again." Small business was not adapting to their competition. People talked about how local bookstores couldn’t compete with behemoth store pricing, but it was really the customer service that wasn’t competitive.

Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Last month, I walked into a Borders books with a huge "going out of business" sale. The whopping discount that generated all the crowds: 20%. Seriously. I mentioned to my buddy that Amazon had the same books at 40% with free shipping. A clerk overheard me and responded: "Yeah, but you can take this one home today. It’s worth paying more." Ah, I thought, this is why you are going out of business. It isn’t the price, per se. It’s the expectation that I (the consumer) will behave the way he expects me to. I was supposed to adapt to them. That clerk was right about one thing: Price isn’t everything. As a consumer, I am perfectly willing to pay more for something if I have a compelling reason… but it has to be my reason.

This is why mom-and-pops should celebrate the demise of Borders (and the subsequent troubles at Barnes and Noble). There is room, now, for brick and mortar competition. The little guys have a second chance, but now they have to adapt to Amazon as well as bigger (albeit struggling) stores. The good news? It can be done.

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to visit Borderlands Books in San Francisco. They are a small shop that specializes in SF/F books. The store is physically small, but beautiful. It has well polished hardwood floors, custom-made bookcases that leave little room for empty space, and an exhaustive selection of new and used books (many of which are rare). The real secret of its success, however, lies in its employees. I wanted to document the store’s look, so I created a 2 gigapixel image to take home with me. While I waited for the gizmo to take its hundred or so pictures, I spoke with some of the employees, who had a great deal to say about virtually any book I mentioned. When was the last time I encountered real product knowledge from a clerk at a bookstore? Never. This was an entirely new experience for me, and I liked it. I also found out that Borderlands offers a monthly newsletter for their community (when have you ever heard of a Borders "community?"), and they seem to have 5-6 book signings each month. If these guys were in Dallas, I wouldn’t shop anywhere else.

Here are the advantages that I see for independents:

  1. They can be niche. There’s no way a corporate store could have much depth, because they are incented to not stock slow selling books. We have a list of SF/F bookstores that are making niche work.
  2. Higher margins. It may sound counter-intuitive, since chain bookstores get to buy new books at wholesale by buying in volume, but small shops often sell new and used books side-by-side. They can buy a $12 paperback off their customers for $3 and sell it for $6. That’s a 100% markup.
  3. The ability to browse. As good as Amazon is, it’s still not ideal for browsing. Fan sites (like Worlds Without End) try to fill this niche by organizing books according to awards, best-of lists, and the recommendations of fellow fans. Nevertheless, even we can’t compare to a brick and mortar store with a strong selection and knowledgeable staff.

As many shop owners may point out, there are many challenges to small bookshops that I have not addressed. Nevertheless, I believe having one fewer corporate chain in the mix can only be good for the sorts of stores I’d rather shop.

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14 Comments

Daniel Coleman   |   01 Sep 2011 @ 10:55

Very interesting take. As a member of the ‘writers’ community, I felt a disturbance in the Force when Borders announced going out of business, that was the equivalent of the destruction of Alderaan. A lot of people are unable to see any upside.With Borders gone, the only bookstores we have here in Logan, Utah, are Hastings and a community fixture, The Book Table. As an author, dealing with them has been heavenly compared with trying to set something up with Borders or Barnes and Noble. Earlier this month I set off on a short-notice book tour. Was Barnes and Noble interested in setting up a last minute signing? Of course not. They have bigger fish to fry. But Bookman’s in Tucson and Hastings in Las Cruces were more than happy to accommodate me, and I had great signings at both stores.With the changing market, there are more opportunities than ever. Who will be the ones to adapt and capitalize?

Mattastrophic   |   01 Sep 2011 @ 12:02

I have certainly been enjoying picking over the discounted remains of the two Borders in town, but also felt a sadness that a big bookseller was going under like that. Still, this post makes a good point, and it’s one I see at work in my city. I live in Louisville, Ky., and we have several discounted booksellers including a couple of Half-Price Books franchises and some nice local vendors. The former has gotten on like gangbusters as the economy has tanked and the latter still gets business for events like those Daniel mentioned in his post as well as for their close ties to local businesses. The closing of Borders should make it even better for these guys. I try to buy used over new whenever I can; I see it as a form of recycling as well as being more affordable, but I will buy from a locally-owned chain because I like what they do for the community and how friendly and knowledgeable they are. Just like Jonathan said, I don’t mind paying more, but it’s for my reasons, not your model of me as a consumer.

Mattastrophic   |   01 Sep 2011 @ 19:10

Er, what Rico said, not Jonathan. Sorry, my brain’s been feeling like a big lump of pudding the past few days. While I’m still talking, I will say that I have my Book Tracker page bookmarked on my phone so I can use it to help direct my browsing when I’m in a bookstore.

Rico Simpkins   |   01 Sep 2011 @ 19:56

Daniel: You make a good point about book signings. I suspect places like Borderlands won’t care how big of an author you are, so long as you write in their genres. If I owned a local bookshop (a dream of mine, in fact) I would want as many authors there as possible, just to give patrons the sense that we were in touch with people who write. This is one definite advantage that local shops have over Amazon and Kindle. After all, you can’t get an ebook signed.

Rico Simpkins   |   01 Sep 2011 @ 20:10

Mattastrophic: I am VERY glad to hear you use Booktrackr on your cell phone in used bookstores. We have been hoping that people would do exactly that. We have been unclear on whether people actually see its potential for that. Because it tells you what you have already read and what has won various awards, it’s ideal for finding random matches in used book stores that don’t have a full library. The ONLY way to beat an Amazon price is to go to a used book store, and the only way to find what you want at such places is to have some sort of list at your fingertips, since the selection at used stores have such entirely random gaps. The joy of discovery, I think, is enhanced in this way.

gallyangel   |   02 Sep 2011 @ 04:58

Frankly, I’m not sorry to see them go. Anywhere from 30 to 60, or higher, of that dollar spent at a chain leaves the local economy. Which is one of the reasons the economy is so bad, all the national banks doing the exact same thing. Anyway, never had much use for Border’s. I could always find whatever I wanted cheaper on the net, even with shipping. That did not hold true about a week, ten days ago, when their sales reached 50 for their manga. It was exactly what I’d been waiting on. A 50 sale is the only thing which could get me to shop at a chain like that. From what I hear, several other retailers are already in talks for their space here. Borders will not be missed.

Courtney   |   04 Sep 2011 @ 03:55

Borderlands is amazing. I live about a half hour from SF in the East Bay, and I try to get there whenever I go into the city.

Dave Post   |   04 Sep 2011 @ 11:07

@Courtney: I’m so jealous! There has never been a SF/F specialty store in Dallas or any city I’ve lived in for that matter.

Mattastrophic   |   04 Sep 2011 @ 15:16

I’m jealous too. A place like that would only last about 6 months out here, sad to say. Anyone else ever notice the bookstore geography when it comes to the SF/F section? One of the Borders in town actually divided that section between SF and Fantasy, which I have never seen anywhere else, although it was towards the back of the store and down some stairs. At the other Borders it was a small but densely packed alcove, fairly crowded by an A-Frame right in the middle of it, again toward the back of the store and across from the much larger YA section. At a Books-a-Million in my hometown it kept getting pushed back. It used to be directly behind mainstream fiction, but then romance, YA, and Manga got put in between them. Also, the alphabetization reset in multiple sections for no apparent reason, so people had a hard time finding what they were looking for. An exception I’ve noticed has been Half-Price books, that gives a generous amount of space for SF/F, putting it in the middle of the store, and has separate aisles for paperback and hardcovers.

Rico Simpkins   |   05 Sep 2011 @ 04:52

Mattastrophic: In the meantime, Mysterious Galaxy (http://www.mystgalaxy.com/) has been so successful in San Diego that it is opening a second location (http://www.dailybreeze.com/latestnews/ci_18820622) in the wake of Borders’ departure (score one for my thesis). They specialize in SF, Fantasy and Horror and are apparently thriving. The time for specialty bookshops has come.

Mattastrophic   |   05 Sep 2011 @ 11:54

God, I hope the time has come. If I’m ever out that way I’ll make it a point to visit and spend some money there.

Courtney   |   05 Sep 2011 @ 15:11

@Dave Post…I’m surprised there’s nothing like it in Dallas. I’m sure Austin does, considering the particular geek community in that area and the great comic stores they have, but I’m not sure what kind of drive Dallas to Austin is.

Rico Simpkins   |   05 Sep 2011 @ 15:35

Nope. Nothing in Austin, either. Well, there is a place called The Book Exchange, which is half romance and half pulp scifi (because that’s what sells), but the staff are just there to hawk books. It’s not really a specialty shop in any real sense of the word. I’m tellin’ ya, fellas: The market is wide open (except in San Diego and San Fran, apparently).

Dave Post   |   05 Sep 2011 @ 15:52

@Courtney: Rico is right – there ain’t nothing. We’ve had comic shops here and there but no book stores. I’ve always thought it strange that a city the size of Dallas does not have one. Add in neighboring Ft. Worth and the cities in between and surrounding and it seems like one would fly here. Opening a store is a dream Rico and I have shared for many years.

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