The Sunday Salon – The Future of Bookselling

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.


17 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon – The Future of Bookselling

  1. It’s been awful watching this chain die on both sides of the water – in England too, Borders closed. As you say, all those people put out of work. I know, I used to work in bookstores, and lost my job twice as they closed. Recently the used bookstore where I got my start in books closed down, after 25 years in the business here in Ottawa. It’s so sad to see bookstores close. At the same time, I do my best to go to the independent bookstores as well as our one chain store, Chapters, which is Canadian owned, to get my books. It might be easy to order from Amazon, and I have many times, but I also want bookstores to remain open so I know the only way is to shop there. Plus I get to touch the books, see them, feel them, look at them – all the tactile pleasures that online buying can’t give. It will be interesting to see which bookstores hold out and survive, and how many. I fervently hope many will.

    • It’s that tactile sensation of being in contact with books, of being able to peruse whole bunches of them, that should (hopefully) keep bookstores alive to some degree. I need to make a conscious effort to support real bookstores too.

      I like Chapters – whenever I visit Canada, I look for them. Have they been affected by the economy as well?

      • As far as I can tell, the Chapters chain hasn’t been as affected by the economy. Part of the reason I think is that the Chapters chain is the only big box bookseller chain that one can find in Canada and also the fact that the economy here in Canada hasn’t been affected. They also offer deep discounts for those who hold their iRewards card (I got a $30+ book for about $13 last June due to a 60% off the cover price for their members), which allows members to get discounts at their Coles, Chapters, Indigo and other stores.

  2. Pingback: The Sunday Salon – The Future of Bookselling | Bookstack | Children Picture Book

  3. I was very sad when I learned Borders was closing. Especially since I was there 2 days before the announcement and you know that the employees probably had no idea. I think that eventually there will be room for only one of the major bookstores in a given area. Borders was pushed out and I watched the Books-A-Million a town over from me close after a Barnes and Noble was put in a better location.
    A lot of people are worried that printed books will become obsolete, but I highly doubt that. I think there will always be people to buy them.

    My Sunday Salon

    • I’m not a huge fan of the Books-A-Million stores I’ve been too. But they are better than no bookstore at all!

      I can’t imagine a world without printed books – I hope I don’t have to!

  4. I was sad about the Borders closing, too. A few months ago, when individual stores were closing here and there, the one in my neighborhood seemed to have dodged a bullet. But then…no.

    I will miss its presence, but I must admit that lately I hadn’t enjoyed shopping there, choosing Barnes & Noble over Borders. But it was a great place to have coffee and read, and I would often find a book or two when I perused the shelves.

    You’re right, though, about them going overboard with too many stores.

    I’m hoping that we’re not going to be reduced to only Internet shopping!


    • I used to prefer Borders to B & N, but in recent years I haven’t enjoyed shopping there quite as much. It will be interesting to see what happens next, won’t it?

  5. It always is sad when bookstores close, whether they be independents or chains. Even though chains don’t offer the personal service that independents do, they do offer a valuable resource to their communities, large and small.

    • In regards to ChaptersIndigo, one thing they have done effectively is allow people know if a particular book is in a particular bookstore and you can go and pick it up there instead of ordering it online. They have also made sure that one can find events at their various stores across the country and have also made sure that the CEO of the company isn’t faceless and is known by the customer base.

      • More and more independent stores are finding ways to make it convenient for shoppers to order online, or to find books in their stores. I think that’s key, along with the personality factor. No matter how involved we are with “social media,” we still crave a personal connection.

  6. I am not as sad about the demise of Borders as I am about the loss of several independent bookstores in my area; the direct result of easier access to Borders and its archrival, Barnes and Noble. Your remark about the loss of so many jobs was a necessary konk on the head, however. I hope many of those people will be hired by other bookstores or libraries so that they can keep doing what they love.
    I do believe this will help the independents, many of which are already doing what you suggest…

    • I would dearly love to see independent book stores rise to the occasion and fill in the gaps. I always choose the local/independent variety store over the chain versions. I hope some of the Borders folks find their way into those venues.

  7. I do agree – here in Cambridge we had three chain book stores at one point, all selling more or less the same stock. What was the point? Now we are down to one, unsurprisingly. But I am terribly sorry about the job losses and can only hope employees find work elsewhere – and better paid, too, because having worked in the chain stores, I can promise you that the pay was dreadful! So perhaps it will prove a silver lining to some poor souls to get more remunerative work.

    • I think a lot of stores fell into that rut of “more is better” when really, sometimes “more” is just redundant. It’s too bad that people have to pay the price for unsound business planning.

  8. Well said, Becca. I’m loyal to my local bookstore. But my kids are still enchanted by the large size of box stores. They don’t realize yet that the small store with its great selection is not tiresome and tiring the way a big store is.

  9. Having many friends who were, until recently, employed at our local Borders, I know by close second-hand how hard the news hit pretty much every employee. Many of them loved their jobs more than anyone else in any other profession I know and, although I haven’t shopped at a Borders in ages (although I do agree with laurelrain that it was a fantastic place to go to read and have a cup of coffee and people watch), it still saddens me to know that not only will there now be 11,000 more unemployed Americans but that, for many who don’t live in major cities with a plethora of independent book stores, being able to easily and relatively cheaply purchase books in a physical environment will now no longer be possible.

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