Last week Borders announced it was closing 200 locations nation-wide for bankruptcy - including the one local here.
So a thing you learn very quickly when working at textbooks is that Amazon is the enemy. They sell books below cost when new, as they’re not really actually making their money from their book sales, as well as brokering the private used deals- which is all good for the students, and I have in fact at times told a student when we’ve been sold out of a book they need that honestly they’d get it faster by going to Amazon.
But the fact is that this does mean reduced sales for the store, which results in more cuts, which leads to things being stocked in even fewer quantities and more people going to Amazon just because we don’t have it - don’t you just love spirals?
Borders claims a lot of the reason it’s doing this closure is due to competition from Amazon.
But when you work at an independent book store, it’s not just Amazon that’s the enemy - it’s also corporate bookstore around. We are encouraged to support other locals and independents - if we don’t have a specific book, recommend another bookshop in town. If it’s out of print, recommend the local used store, or suggest Powell’s, as opposed to Amazon (which for California, will in fact usually work faster if they have it). But never ever should you recommend trying Borders - even if the customer will wind up having to walk past Borders to get to the bookstore you do recommend.
Because of the nature of large-scale corporations, they can stock things that don’t sell, stock larger quantities of books they will eventually have to send back, and offer further reaching coupons weekly or monthly than we can afford. Many times I’ve told a customer that we don’t have a book because it hasn’t sold in years, but could get it in a couple of days - to be told they will just try Borders instead, though it was a shame because they wanted to try to give us the business first (P.S. Customers who try to guilt trip a struggling independent for not stocking a nonprofitable obscure book for your random whim? Sorry, but no). This is aside from just the general competition of having another bookstore not only in the town, but on the same street, especially a bigger one.
So it almost goes without saying that when the announcement was made, the bookshop erupted backstage. Facebook statuses from my co-workers celebrating, high fives, congratulations from regular customers on having “beaten the big boys” by surviving. This happening in the back rooms while the owner congratulated us on having made it, but cautioning us to not be disrespectful and to try to keep our celebrations/gloating to ourselves.
A publisher rep visiting one of the buyers brought the owner a bottle of champagne on a day I was working, and the buyer brought it down to the staff room, so that everyone working that day could try to rotate in, have a small glass, and toast - ostensibly to our survival… until someone came up with the clever toast of “To Books Without Borders!”
So in all of this, I’ve been being happy for my bookshop that it’s surviving, and I understand the competition drive…but I can’t really celebrate “Books Without Borders,” and the closure of a (even a corporate) bookstore. While there is the big, menacing shadow of the corporate entity known as Borders lurking behind its mentions and the plastic-y facade of its store here, I walked in and saw booksellers like me, people who were happy to be working in a bookstore. There are books on the shelves (and CDs and DVDs and other brick-a-brac…) and the SMELL of new books, and people there to read and buy books (and do homework, drink coffee, meet up with people, and shoplift…). It was a place that before I started working at my bookshop I honestly went to more often, because I was a poor college student and they gave me discounts. It was a place I went to to do my homework and apply for jobs online, because I could plug in my computer and then procrastinate by reading books I was too poor to buy. It was - and is, for at least a few more months - a bookstore in a college town, and I can’t help but be sad that it’s going away.
Customers come into the bookshop and while they’re congratulating us on still sticking around get serious for a moment and contemplate the bleak future of the bookstore, as heralded by the closure of Borders. Can physical bookstores survive in the age of digital commerce? More importantly, can books survive as a viable medium and popular commodity with the rise of e-readers (including the iPad and iPhone with e-reader apps) and e-books?
I’m not worried about this - and why not is a rant for another day, as this is already a bit too long. I don’t think books will ever disappear, and as for the store closures, I think it’s a sign of bad times, but not a death knell yet. The downside of corporate is that while their large coffers mean smaller locations can afford things they wouldn’t be able to as independents, it also means they tend to take the fall for mistakes for the bigger locations, or the corporation in general. All the articles I’ve been reading about the Borders closure have also cited large miscalculations in terms of marketing and technology as being larger factors in the closure, as opposed to competitive sales. As an independent, my bookshop is making it’s own decisions, watching it’s own budget, with people on site, who care about this specific store calling the shots.
My bookshop and the Borders are two of four general bookstores in town - not counting the two spiritual bookstores and the Goodwill stores (one tiny Goodwill solely a dedicated bookshop). The bookshop and Borders are on the same street, about three blocks apart, with another store (primarily dealing in used, though with a large selection and also some new) just a block or two down from the Borders. Then there is the fourth store just about a block and a half down from the bookshop, off the main drag of downtown. I’m not worried about sustaining the bookshop in the long term. And while it’s good (for the bookshop) the corporate competition is gone, there’s still competition around, albeit friendly.
I’m not going to spread it around, either in the bookshop or outside of it, but I am sad Borders is closing. I will mourn it’s loss, and the loss it means of a central location for people to gather around books, and remember the times I’ve had there. And welcome anyone who wants a substitute to come into my shop - it’s not as big, and there’s no coffee, but there will always be books. And I’ll drink a toast with you to Border’s and it’s closure.