Borders & The Future of Bookselling

20 Jul

I admit most people who were going to comment on the closing and liquidation of Borders have already done so since the news that the bookseller is officially going under two days ago. But I’ve been mulling it over, reading through some articles and blog comments and trying to decide how I feel about the whole mess.

And my overwhelming feeling is sadness.

As a former bookseller – and one who worked for Borders’ largest competitor, Barnes & Noble – my reaction has been more personal than (I suspect) the Average Jane out there. Fellow booksellers can relate. It’s never a good thing when there are fewer shelves to peruse, fewer opportunities to discover a new book because you saw it on a bookstore table somewhere or because a bookseller suggested it. One well-meaning friend expressed to me that she was surprised that I was sad about the closing since I’d been pretty loyal to my  former employer and wasn’t really a regular Borders customer.

I don’t think its possible to express how off base that sentiment is. The word “competitor” is key here: without like-minded competition in the market, it doesn’t open up an opportunity for a monopoly by B&N; it only drives those book-buying customers who are losing their town’s only bookstore to Amazon in even larger numbers. Brick-and-mortar bookstores provide a service that is hard to come by, and the big chain bookstores provide that service to droves of people who would never set foot in an indie bookstore. We’re losing not only the opportunity to browse, but we’re also losing miles of shelf space dedicated to niche genres – romance, sci-fi and fantasy, manga, even most of the non-fiction categories you take for granted in a box bookstore – that indies don’t have the space nor the inclination to stock. Those genre purchaser are going to flock to online retailers, which only furthers the decline of hand-to-hand bookselling.

One lesson I’m taking from all of this is that I must make a more conscious effort to be aware of how my book purchases are made. I – and we all – should become responsible consumers, if we’re dedicated to books and to the place brick-and-mortar bookstores have in our culture and in our economy. As a blogger who receives many books for review, the book purchases I make from this point on are going to become much more strategic.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen my tweets about how I planned to purchase George R. R. Martin’s new book A Dance with Dragons. There is a Barnes & Noble two blocks from my work in downtown DC, but I’m choosing to buy this hugely successful book through my local indie bookseller. I don’t buy many books from bookstores any more, but I KNOW Martin is going to sell a preposterous number of copies, and I can do my small part by buying from a bookstore that might not see as much of the love because it’s likely that many people pre-ordered the book online. I wanted my dollars to directly support a local business, and I will happily pay more for the same book to do so.

However, I’m staring down the barrel of graduate school in about a month and I plan to order and buy my textbooks from Barnes & Noble. I’m doing this because, with the Borders closing, I’m reminded that it’s not just the indies we’ve got a responsibility to – it’s all bookstores, whether they’re corporate giants or locally owned. There is  a place – a welcome place – for Barnes & Noble and other box bookstores like Borders in our book buying sensibilities. We have a responsibility to remember that as well.

If you don’t believe me, take the example of the Barnes & Noble that opened my sophomore year of college in the neighboring town near my campus. There had previously only been one, very tiny, poorly stocked indie bookseller in my college village – it was the ONLY bookstore for about 50 miles in any direction (not counting my college bookstore – and no one did). If you didn’t live in the village, you likely had no idea that this tiny indie existed, and therefore had no available brick-and-mortar bookstore without driving an hour away. When the Barnes & Noble opened, it became one of the busiest and most popular places to go in town. People made the effort to travel to shop there and it was never empty, no matter the time of day. For that community, that was their local bookstore. When they bought from this store, it put money into the local economy that was previously being spent exclusively online. Now, I can’t imagine what would happen, how that city and the surrounding towns would drastically change, if they were to lose their bookstore.

Think about how much money would be lost to Amazon based purely on the fact that this bookstore stocked all the required school reading for no fewer than five school districts. And then tell me that all box bookstores are killing bookselling.

There’s no denying that the practice of bookselling is changing, but as long as there are bookstores out there, there will be capable and intelligent book lovers who will be happy to suggest a book to you. If you haven’t visited your local bookstore, maybe this weekend take a trip and remind yourself how great it feels to walk down the aisles and discover something new.

I am a Powell’s affiliate, and I’m in the process of becoming an IndieBound affiliate. I encourage you to visit your local indie as well. Find it by clicking on the banner below:

If you’d also like to shop online, I encourage you to use Powell’s:
Visit Scenic
I’ll also be posting the giveaway winner for Erica Jong’s Sugar in My Bowl this evening at 8pm so be sure to enter by clicking on the title or here.

And if you don’t win, you can buy a copy by clicking on the cover below:


8 Responses to “Borders & The Future of Bookselling”

  1. Greg Zimmerman July 20, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    Good points about niche books losing shelf space and hand-to-hand bookselling being collateral damage of the death of Borders. Hadn’t thought of those. Like you, as someone who lives in a big city, with many book-buying options, it’s still important to remember to support the local indies – they’re also the ones who are good at doing author events and other promotions that the chains don’t do quite as well. Supporting those is huge, too. Great post!

    • Rachel July 20, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

      Thanks for the comment. I think I might be feeling the closings very acutely because I definitely miss being a bookseller at times. But if something spurs us to be more responsible book consumers, I hope this is it and we don’t have to watch the entire in-person bookselling market to go down in flames first.

  2. William Torgerson July 20, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    As I’ve come to expect from you, good stuff! I enjoy a post with the seriousness of this one. Thank you.

  3. Bree July 21, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    What a wonderful post. I completely agree with you. I live in a city with both Borders and B&N and I’m still going to miss Borders. We prefered it over B&N as Borders is more user-friendly.

  4. Meg July 22, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    I actually didn’t realize that you were a fellow DC-er! The nice thing about this city is that we have some really good indie bookstores here but they can’t carry nearly as many books as Borders could. I grew up in a smaller town that didn’t have an indie bookstore (lots of used bookstores but no indies) but we always had Borders!

  5. Jane August 2, 2011 at 2:13 am #

    I was devastated when my childhood Borders shut its doors back in the first round of closures. The writing had been on the wall: a B&N had opened closer to the mall, many empty shelves began to fill the space, but it still stung when the time came. Borders had popped up as the first “big” bookstore in my area when I was in elementary school, and it had as much to do with making me the reader I am today as anything else. Though I’d long since moved away, I’d always made a point to visit the store when back home. Seeing the whole business go under greatly saddened me, regardless of what the world of business says. Books and the stories they hold all become incredibly personal through the act of reading, and to see one of the major purveyors of books completely disappear… I can’t help but feel that on a personal level. I felt compelled to stop by one of my local Borders for the going out of business sale. I tried to pick only “really good” books so that my last purchases from a Borders will (hopefully!) be memorable…


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