Can Borders Books Be Saved—And Should It?

When I first wrote my dire predictions about Borders Book Stores—in the waning days of 2010 (preparing to post it on New Year’s Day), I didn’t anticipate the soap opera we were going to witness these past few weeks. Now it seems my fears about Borders lasting out the year may have been optimistic—by the looks of things we’ll be lucky if they make to February! Whether they are able to “restructure their finances” (in other words: beg, borrow or hoodwink creditors for some financial breathing room) without Barnes & Noble making too much of a fuss about any special treatment the publishers and distributors will extend to them— after all, business is business), remains to be seen. The simple fact is, however, that the demise of Borders Books would be a major blow—to the book business, to readers, to our culture… to everyone who cherishes reading and deems books and solid writing of fiction and non-fiction a vital part of the nation’s life and soul. And it won’t do Barnes & Noble any good either.

Why do I say that? Because of Mr. Sander, that’s why. My father had a dry goods store on Havemeyer Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and right around the corner there was another dry goods store operated by a man I knew only as “Sander” (though I always called him Mr. Sander), almost identical in size and very similar in the kind of stuff sold. I remember thinking that my father would probably be doing a whole lot better if Mr. Sander didn’t have his store so close by selling virtually the same thing as my dad. Once I said this to my dad and he laughed and said I couldn’t be more wrong. “People come here instead of going to the department stores, boychik,” he said, “because they know that if Rabinowitz doesn’t have it, Sander might. Besides, with both of us here, and so close, they can be sure nobody’s charging more than he should.” When Mr. Sander had a heart attack and couldn’t come into his store, Dad took care of Sander’s store and kept it open for a few weeks until Mr. Sander was well enough to return and Mom took care of our store alone—that’s how important it was for Sander to be there. When Sander’s store closed (he passed away in the late 60s), my dad was sad to lose a friend, and when he came home from the funeral, he said, “Well, there goes the business.” It didn’t take me long to realize he meant his business.

The Demise of Borders would be a Tragedy for Books and Book Culture in America

The relationship between Borders and Barnes & Noble should have been like the classic competitions that made for healthy business sport in American commerce over the past one-hundred years—McDonald’s and Burger King; Hertz and Avis; Ford and GM; Boeing and Lockheed; Apple and IBM… (I once used the old saw, “Macy’s doesn’t tell Gimbel’s and Gimbel’s doesn’t tell Macy’s” to my 20-something staff, and they all looked at me fish-eyed and said, “Who’s Gimbel’s?”) And that should have been what happened: there should have been Borders stores opening up near B&Ns everywhere creating a healthy competition between the two. I saw a little bit of that when I lived in the western suburbs of Philadelphia—in Ardmore, to be exact. In neighboring Bryn Mawr there was a large Borders Books and a few blocks away a Barnes & Noble bookstore opened up a few years later—and right between them was a really great used book store, Beverly Potter’s Title Page, still there; and just for good measure, on the campus of Bryn Mawr College, another fantastic used book store, The Owl, now defunct. (Talk about a pig in you-know-what. Maybe you’ve got notions of the perfect way to spend a snowy afternoon, but do I really have to lay out the four stops on my “Okay-Lord-you-can-take-me-now” day at this point?)

But Borders had trouble getting a toehold in New York City. (The rumors about why that was the case—whispers that business interests colluded with government to keep them out; use you’re imagination—seem even more credible today than they were when they were first circulated.) But the disappearance of Borders Books will be a debacle for books and book culture in America. A recent New York Times article published an item from the US Government Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract that claimed there were 10,600 bookstores in the U.S., but what the item did not indicate was that that number included all bookstores—religious bookstores; college and professional textbook stores; children bookstores—plus music stores (i.e., stores that sell sheet music along with musical instruments); periodical emporia (which look more like large news-stands); and, of course, antiquarian and used book dealers. All are included in classification NAICS 4512 in that US Census document (available on-line, naturally).

How many bookstores are there in the U.S.?

So how many bookstores are there in the United States? Well, the recent stories about the troubles that both B&N, Borders and bookselling in general are having gave us some numbers. The number of general trade bookstores—bookstores that you and I can walk into and browse the current crop of new books and recently published books and look at a selection of titles in fiction and non-fiction in many areas—that number is now under 2000! That’s 2000 for the entire United States—and frankly, that’s a generous estimate. I’d say 1500 is a more realistic ceiling figure. Borders operates about 510 stores; Barnes & Noble operates about 720 stores; Books-A-Million operates about 220 stores; and the number of independent bookstores account for another few hundred. From where I sit, independent bookstores are closing fast (as are chain outlets), even in the New York City vicinity—closing faster than I can manage to go visit. Losing Borders Bookstores would mean losing a large chunk of what remains of the book-selling terrain.

But it could happen. In fact, last month it seemed to me that was just the way things were going and Borders was heading for Chapter 11. My only consoling note was to also predict—also in that posting—that new blood was going to enter bookselling and learn from the sorry experience of Borders. All right, so what is that sorry experience and what are those lessons? Some of those lessons had to do with poor business decisions made by people who negotiated leases for stores who evidently didn’t know nearly enough about real estate. The reasons most often given for why no one is interested in taking over Borders is that whoever would take them over would find themselves saddled with horrendous leases for many of their stores. I once had a conversation with the manager of that store in Bryn Mawr and he laid out for me that store’s financials. Afterwards I had to accompany the poor guy downstairs to Gullifty’s bar in the basement and get him (and me) a double vodka.

Mistakes were made—many mistakes

A new president of Borders Books took over a few years ago. He had come from a major retailer (What difference which major retailer and who he was? Who am I, Frank Drebin at a traffic accident telling onlookers, “Nothing to see here, folks; move along…”?)—and in his inaugural speech, infamously webcast on the Borders website, he announced that it was going to be his goal to “give people reasons to go to Borders for reasons other than getting books.” The assembled staff in Michigan clapped politely, but you could see the look of confused panic on their faces. Someone who was there told me that she then knew what it must have felt like being at the Republican Convention that nominated Goldwater. Naturally he was gone a year or so later, but the stores became reflections of that confusion and that panic.

But there were other mistakes made—simple ones that any retailer (any retailer—in fact, anyone who has ever bought anything in any retail establishment) could have spotted and corrected. I’m going to list some of them here, and I’ll bet dollars to the proverbial donuts that Borders people will argue that what I’m saying is just not so any more, that those were the bad old days and that things are different now—but here’s what I say to you and to them: As a publishing professional, I’ve dealt with Borders directly—locally and nationally, and tried to communicate many of these problems and issues to them. I visit bookstores regularly. I’m that nut-job whose idea of a good time is a day spent in five different books stores. And I’ve visited seven Borders Bookstores in the New York area often—all in the past six months. All the shortcomings listed below apply to all of them. (And they apply to some degree to many of the B&Ns, so don’t go preening yourselves down on Fifth Avenue—all these problems are nearly as true of you. But we’re not talking about you right now.)

I’ve long recognized that Borders aspired to be a higher class of book-dealing operation owing to its origins in Ann Arbor and growing out of University Microfilms, and I realized that they were fighting against the old Mencken maxim that lay at the heart of American cultural enterprise, namely: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. But that’s no excuse for ignoring the basics of retailing and consumer relations. Even without Barnes & Noble breathing down its neck, Borders should have realized that: (a) independent bookstores were a difficult proposition financially (for the same reason corner grocery stores were); and (b) an electronic revolution of some kind was on its way that was going to have some impact on information delivery—and that was going to effect books and book delivery—which meant bookstores at the very least. Even dinosaurs like me understood as much as early as the late 1970s. Borders was on board when the superstores came on the scene; they were even keeping pace when bookstores discovered biscotti and added cafés. Very nice. But that’s where their innovation genes ran short. Some of the things B&N tried Borders shied away from—Borders made only a half-hearted foray into publishing and is a very late-comer into the e-reader game; so late as to be virtually a no-show.

It’s time for Borders—and for the “new blood” that’s going to come into book-selling (as well as the old blood that’s going to survive into the next decade) to regroup and learn from the mistakes of the past. None of this is rocket science; all one has to do is walk into a Borders store and spend ten minutes there and you’ll be able to tick these off on a clip-board and make it official (if that’ll make you happy). So here’s that list—mistakes made and correctives prescribed:

1. Discounting. Borders has always been unclear about what their discount policy was, even to the point of being unclear whether they had any discount policy at all. Did they discount best-sellers? Did they discount any featured books? Their Rewards program required a PhD to decipher. (I’ve been carrying it around on my key chain for years; I have no idea why.) I know from personal experience that they did not discount books of authors who appeared in the store—not the books the authors were promoting and signing, nor any of their other books, and they certainly didn’t discount anything by those authors in any other stores. I got the impression that there was somebody in the Borders hierarchy who was allergic to discounting anything. Start discounting things regularly and consistently—and discount books that people want and are looking for. Oh, and tell somebody about it!

2. Store Design. For years, Borders designed stores so that many books could not be reached by anyone but NBA players—and not backcourt players, but forwards and centers. Bookcases were floor-to-ceiling affairs and they were deep bookcases so that books on lower shelves required getting down on one’s knees and donning a miner’s lamp-hat. Walking down those chasms of bookcases and not being able to see the store was also sometimes a scary experience, especially with a child. I’m sure some of that has changed—but I’ll bet some of it hasn’t (I know several Borders in the area where it hasn’t). Of the seven Borders Bookstores I visit regularly in the New York area (including one over the GWB in New Jersey and one up north in Yonkers), the criticisms and shortcoming listed here apply to all of them. My advice to the execs: Spend a little time in a Target and then redesign the stores. The B&N stores are only a little better, but not much. (But as I said, we’re not talking about B&N right now.)

3. Customer Service. The attitude I have encountered in Borders Bookstores over the past three decades is that they believe people who patronize bookstores not only need no help, but are offended by the very suggestion that they may need some assistance. We all need help, no matter what we’re shopping for. Who isn’t lost in a wine shop? “The only person who doesn’t need help in a wine shop is an alcoholic.” (I don’t know who said that; I may have just made it up.) The same is true in a bookstore. It may be too much to expect every store to provide the kind of expert knowledge that used to be available in bookstores—you remember, stores run by walking encyclopedias who were happy to lay their fund of knowledge at your disposal whether you bought anything or not, just for the pleasure of sharing the joy of books and the thrill of bringing a discovery to your doorstep (like that Mrs. Potter I mentioned earlier—I should really give her a call). But the internet has not dispensed with the need for such guidance, certainly not in the store itself. So if you can’t staff the stores with more knowledgeable people, then provide computerized kiosks that provide the information so that people aren’t wandering around blindly, clueless about what is the best book to get them started on a course of study on whatever interests them at the moment.

4. Merchandise Selection. When one walks into a Borders, one is assaulted by a mish-mosh of fluffy toys, ghastly cards and stationary, and what looks like candy. Did they seriously think they could compete with Best Buy or Toys-R-Us? I can understand wanting to have impulse items near the cash register and placing must-have items in the rear—that’s what super-markets do when they place milk and staples in the rear. But the material that has now replaced the books is simply absurd and violates the simple rule of merchandising: people don’t buy something where they don’t expect to find it—no matter how good the deal it is. (Otherwise, why not stock toothpaste; people need that, don’t they?) If you’re so interested in reading, then get in touch with Levenger and produce a line of products for readers to sell in your stores. Or: highlight audio books (I am amazed at how popular they are among readers who have difficulty with type of any size—a growing demographic, trust me.) Design merchandise that appeals to your customer demographic based on real research, not the guesswork you’ve been relying on.

5. In-Store Events. Most of the Borders stores I’ve walked into are like monasteries—quiet, unpeopled, ghostly. It’s been years—maybe decades—since I’ve been in a Borders that was really hopping, crowded with customers. But here’s the most disturbing thing about that: it has always seemed to me that that’s just how they like it! Surely that can’t be, right? So why don’t they have people–friendly events? I was walking through a Borders in New Jersey and chanced upon a knitting group. I was surprised—first, because it was nestled invisibly behind tall bookcases (the “Knitters of Amantillado” perhaps?), and second, because there was no announcement in the window or in the front of the store that the group was meeting. I went to the manager and asked him why and he said that he was allowing the group to meet only because it was a project of the mother of one of his cashiers. “We really don’t want that kind of thing going on here,” he added. What kind of thing—people in your store? Or events that bring people into the store for a good time? So here’s my advice: Start having events in your bookstores that bring regular people in for a good time (even if you have to force yourself).

6. Coordinate Stores to Locale. I don’t know shinola about real-estate, so I can’t comment on those supposedly terrible lease deals Borders got into (though I begin to smell a lame excuse and a scapegoat for a lot of other harebrained management decisions). But I do know the real-estate agent’s mantra: location, location, location. If your business is a bricks-and-mortar operation, use location to your advantage. Even McDonald’s, who tries to get every burger in every location tasting the same, knows that the décor and ambiance of every store has to reflect the culture and demographic of its locale. But I don’t see any of that in any of the Borders stores. They’re cookie-cutter versions of each other—the Penn station store doesn’t seem to me any different from the Columbus Square store or the Ft. Lee store, and you wouldn’t know which store you were in if you were suddenly whisked to any one of them. So make every store reflect the culture of the customers who come into it. The people who come into the Penn Station store are not the same as the people on Park Avenue; one is a commuter and the other is an Upper East-Sider. (Wow, is there a difference!) The stores should reflect that; don’t let them be carbon copies of each other.

7. Communicate and Understand Your Customer. I have never been asked by anyone at a Borders for information about me. Robert Klein makes fun of the way Radio Shack employees ask everyone who comes in to buy a simple battery a whole list of questions, from their address and date of birth to the frequency of their bowel movement. Amazon sends me e-mails alerting me of books I might be interested in based on previous purchases. Not knowing who they’re dealing with, they can’t know that 99% of the time, I’ve already got it. (Sometimes I got it from them, and I wonder why they don’t know that—a glitch in the old computer, I guess.) But Borders (or B&N, come to think of it—pay attention guys…there but for the grace…) never does. And I don’t get that. If there is any business that should be all over me like a cheap suit, it’s a book store. Start learning about your customers and start conversing with them. This is going to cost you in two ways: it will cost you to develop the system to do it; and it will cost you in providing the offers that you will have to make to the customers to make their cooperation worth their while. But in the end, it will be worth your while.

That’s my list—for starters, anyway. Bringing bookstores back is going to be a monumental task that is going to require a lot of work, by many people. (It’s one of the tasks of this site, it so happens.) Losing Borders would be bad news for everyone who cares about books. I hope the people at Barnes & Noble realize that. I know many people I consider my friends at B&N and at Sterling (B&N’s publishing arm)—people I respect and care about—do. I hope it’s true of the people at both those places who regard me as a nuisance and a gadfly, a crackpot and a malcontent (it’s okay, gang—I never take it personally; who loves ya?) as well. So I hope everyone—everyone—will pitch in and help Borders weather this to the other side.

We all need me to be wrong on this one.


1 Response to “Can Borders Books Be Saved—And Should It?”

  1. 1 Judson February 16, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I want the physical sensory experience of browsing for books over a cup of really good coffee. The people who predict the demise of the bookstore compare it to the fate of the video rental store. They think that readers will take to Kindle the way that movie fans took to Netflix. It won’t happen. Spending and enjoyable afternoon in a nice bookstore is about as close to dashing in and out of a Blockbuster as a day at the beach is to 15 minutes in a tanning booth. I will occasionally buy online … always have … but I will still want to spend my time and money in the bookstore.

    — Judson

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