The big bookish news of the week was, of course, the liquidation of the Borders Book Store chain. I’m sad about that, and I could write an elegiac post about all the wonderful memories I have shopping in Borders. But many others have done that, and probably better than I could do.
Mostly, I’m sorry for the 11,000 plus employees of the Borders stores who will lose their jobs. That’s a horrible thing to happen (believe me, I know from firsthand experience) and therein lies the biggest tragedy of the whole situation. It’s also a shame that all these book-loving people will now go on to other jobs, many of them probably not in the bookish realm. The world needs booksellers to encourage people to read, to help drum up enthusiasm for new authors, and be cheerleaders for the whole bookish industry. Book bloggers can only do so much – I’d hate for us to lose the person-to-person connection you can only make with other readers in brick and mortar bookstores.
But honestly, is anyone surprised by the demise of big chain bookstores? When Borders first opened here in Ann Arbor, they were an exciting anamoly. When I was growing up in 1960’s in the Detroit suburbs, there were no bookstores anywhere. If you purchased a book – and that was fairly rare in my blue collar neighborhood where any books you needed or wanted to read were borrowed from the library – you purchased it in the book department of major stores, like Sears and J.L. Hudson, where the selection was limited to some children’s picture books, the “classics,” and maybe the latest New York Times Best Sellers. When I walked into a Borders store for the first time, I was almost 25 years old and a bookstore virgin. And yes, I was positively orgasmic over the whole experience.
Excited by their initial success, the Borders company, like many another company in the US during boom times, decided to expand, and expand, and expand some more. Pretty soon there were almost as many bookstores as there are Walgreen’s. In Ann Arbor, home of the original Borders, there was that first location on State Street downtown, plus a new Borders on North Campus, just about 1/2 mile down the road from a two-story Barnes and Noble.
And the merchandise in every one of those stores was basically all the same.
It doesn’t take long to realize that if three stores within a 10 mile radius are all selling virtually the same product at the same price, a product you can buy on the internet more cheaply and without leaving the convenience of your armchair, than at least one of those stores is going to become obsolete.
When are we going to figure out here that more isn’t necessarily better and we don’t need multiple versions of the same thing?
I think this is a clear mandate to the independent booksellers. If you can come up with a way to engage the reading public in a new experience – with author readings, a lecture or music series, open mic nights for new writers/poets, writer’s groups, book clubs – if you can find ways to get people into the store and start sharing their love of books with other book lovers so that reading becomes a unique and social experience, than I think you’ve got a chance to make a big success.
Just don’t start opening stores on every corner. Because in the world of literary commerce at least, there can definitely be too much of a good thing.