Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Long, Slow Suicide of Borders

I'm a longtime book fan and I married a serious book collector back in 1977. Even when we had little money, we usually found a way to buy books. When other people might visit fine restaurants when they went to a new place, we'd look for bookstores.

During a trip to Ann Arbor in the late '70s, we made our first trip to Borders. It was the single best bookstore I'd ever been to, except for The Strand in New York City. Eventually, we did get to Powell's in Portland, which is the bookstore Mecca for readers. But Borders had an amazing selection of books and cozy chairs for reading, which wasn't anything you ever saw in a Waldens.

At some point in the early '80s, Borders started to expand. We were living in Massachusetts at the time, and Jim made a trip to Pittsburgh to visit relatives without me. He enthusiastically reported that a Borders had opened just outside of Pittsburgh. While it wasn't quite as overwhelming as Ann Arbor Borders, it had great variety.

A few years later, a Borders opened in Framingham, Massachusetts, not far from where we lived. While we were big fans of the various independent bookstores in Cambridge (especially WordsWorth), it was great having a bookstore nearby with free parking.

In 1993, we moved to Pittsburgh. Not deliberately, we wound up buying a house that was 2 1/2 miles away from Borders. Just after we moved, the deal on our Massachusetts house fell through. I couldn't take months to look for the right job--I needed to get a job quickly so we could make two mortgage payments a month. I went to the Borders, applied, and had to take a test showing that I had a few clues about books. I was hired quickly and went to work.

One of the things that made Borders great in the '80s and '90s was it had a book database that was quite intelligent for its time. Stores were able to rapidly show their inventories and sales trends to headquarters. So Borders management could more easily react to sales trends than many other bookstores could.

But another thing that made Borders great was it demanded expertise from its clerks. Each clerk was responsible for a section of books. You had to shelve them and know about them. In my case, it was the computer book section (for the 10 years before I wound up as a sales clerk, I'd worked with computers). In the mid-90s, the number of books about computers, especially the number of books about this new tool, the Internet, grew rapidly. While an up-to-date online book database was certainly helpful, having people in the stores who really knew certain sections meant customers could get advice from knowledgeable salespeople.

In those days, Borders stressed Community involvement. Each store had a person whose sole job was to coordinate events at the store, both big events (in one year, we had Anne Rice and Oliver North) and small events (book clubs, readings for kids, local author promotions). These events were a great way to attract people who might not ordinarily come into Borders. And, it being the '90s, Borders added coffee bars and music/video sections to their stores.

I worked at Borders for a little over a year full time, then worked a little over the holidays once I got a job with computers again. During the mid-90s, two more Borders opened in the Pittsburgh area. Borders did start to get a bad reputation from independent booksellers in those days. When Borders came into an area, independent booksellers tended to go out of business. Pittsburgh lost many independent booksellers at that time because they could no longer compete. Luckily, some niche sellers, like Mystery Lovers, Bradley Books, and the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon bookstores are still around.

Borders changed hands. Several times. I think it was owned by K-Mart at one point. That was when the notion that the sales management and sales staff really knowing books flew out the window. People were hired to run cash registers and not much else. Instead of individuals being responsible for a section, the books were stocked overnight. During sales hours, all clerks floated, so no one really knew the details of any of the sections. Managers were hired who, in theory understood retail, but didn't necessarily understand books. Borders management had had excellent relationships with its vendors, but started playing games with vendors, beginning with the small presses.

And during the '90s, Borders met up with its own giant-killer - Amazon, which made them even more conscious about costs. A brick and mortar operation like Borders can't sell everything as cheaply as an online operation like Amazon can. But, even now, Amazon can't give you advice about which book to get, it can only give you a list of books by a particular person or about a certain topic.

The one thing Borders lost track of was the idea that a good bookstore was more than just a collection of books: it was populated by people who understood books. Buyers wanted to browse. They wanted to talk to sales people who understood books. While many of us love Amazon, we still would like a place to browse and be surprised by books, the way were often were at Borders in the old days.

Also, Borders made it clear that community relations no longer mattered. People who ran community relations were fired. About the only events at Borders stores these days seem to be storytelling hour. Now, granted, book publishers don't tend to send out many authors on book tours, and they focus tours more on primary markets like New York and Chicago. But, even without the big-name author tours, there are many ways to get the community engaged with the store, and Borders stopped doing most of them.

By 2001, my local Borders didn't feel quite the same, but as I was looking for a part-time job, I went back to work there for a few hours a week. There was a new manager who didn't seem to read much. There were fewer clerks. It was hard to find things as no one really knew any of the sections anymore. I eventually quit.

So bad trends that Borders started engaging in in the late '90s have been exacerbated. Borders started playing games with all of their vendors, not just the small ones. Borders wants to blame all of its problems on outside forces. I won't say that the publishing industry, which has also been rather slow to change, is completely blameless in the Borders (and Joe Beth's) bankruptcy. But if Borders had had the kind of steady, forward-thinking management it had during its early expansion in the year 2000, I don't think Borders would have declared bankruptcy now. Borders has no one to blame but its own ostrich-headed management.

If you're curious, here are Border's biggest creditors as if its bankruptcy filing. It's disgusting when individuals lose their houses over a few thousand dollars that businesses can conintue to run without paying hundreds of millions of dollars of debt in a timely fashion. I hope Borders' mostly underpaid employees are paid as long as they have jobs.

One thing that may save Barnes and Noble for now are eBooks. I prefer the Nook to the Kindle, so that's what our family bought when we decided to get e-Readers. However, we still tend to buy books - mostly from Amazon, some from Barnes and Noble, some at science fiction conventions and some from other stores we run into. But, I never liked Barnes and Noble as much as I liked Borders for nearly 15 years.

Pittsburgh area note: It looks like the Borders in South Hills (my old store), Monroeville and Penn Circle are closing, but that the North Hills store is staying open. The South Hills store hasn't been doing well recently and has always had parking problems, especially over the holidays.

9/17/2011  Borders is really and completely dead.

9/30/2011:  Some employees at Borders 20 (in Illinois) posted a letter about how they felt about Borders.
 I probably never made this clear in my essay, but I do not blame the failure of Borders on the type of employees who worked there in the '80s and the '90s.  Borders failure can only be laid at its upper management since the mid-'90s.  


Anne said...

As a native Ann Arborite I have long sorrowed over the loss of Borders. When they sold the charming flagship store and created a box store down the street in a former department store building (killing half the independent music stores downtown as an afterthought) I knew things were headed downhill.

I was just recently in the store on the East side of town. Noticing they had a side-of-the-bookshelf feature on Halo novels, I asked why they didn't have Tobias Buckell's Halo novel in the display. He's local to here, I explained. The bookstore should feature his books, I asserted. Two clerks were confused and defensive. They found it on the shelf for me, but I explained that I already had it. I was hoping they would put it in the display. The display is based on a list, they said. That book is not on the list. But it's clearly a Halo book, I pointed out, and, I repeated, Toby Buckell is a local author. They said they would add the book to the display.

So so so hesitant to do something other than the computer's orders from above. So sad.

Laurie Mann said...

Local input over displays absolutely matters. I think the special displays in almost bookstores are now advertising bought by the publishers for their books. That could be why the clerks were so reluctant to add anything.

researcher37 said...

I was a manager for Waldenbook/Brentano's/Borders for 7 years. I knew how to sell books!

But eventually, the fact that I could sell books did not matter. What did matter was if I sold enough Preferred reader cards, or whatever they were called. I was held responsible for that, and little else.

Hours were cut, so stores could not be restocked effectively, and as this post said, community involvement became nill.

I used to be able to feature local authors in my store, but that went away too- all displays in the stores are paid for by publishers, and cannot be changed by the store employees.

So eventually, any marketing or book expertise I had was unimportant- I finally quit. I still have several friend that work there, and it is sad for them.

The company was ruined by mismanagement.

That said, I think there will be room for small stores that know their customers, that feature local bands and authors, etc... they wont make zillions, but enough for the owners.

I read all my books on a Kindle as I live in a rural area. But I still love to peruse, and yes, I still buy regular books for my collection.

So, someone who has a nice place for browsing, a little coffee, and local entertainment, I think can still make a go of it.

Good blog post!

Laurie Mann said...

Thanks, researcher37. I am proud that I never sold a preferred reader card.

Grant K said...

Powell's is in deep trouble too and just laid off a bunch of their workers. Portlanders love Powell's and love having a giant book store, and this has kept them afloat here, where they would have gone bust a long time ago in most other cities. The truth is they are pricey and trying to compete with giants like Amazon and a host of e-readers. The future of the bookstore is very murky.

Grant K said...

I have to disagree with your comment,"But, even now, Amazon can't give you advice about which book to get, it can only give you a list of books by a particular person or about a certain topic."

To me I mostly get far more out of Amazon because of the excellent way they handle reviews, and to be clear, they defined that process and everyone else is trying to be like them. It's not perfect by any means, but it is an outstanding resource.

If I go to any bookstore the chances are the owner/staff do not know the books I like and when they do they have only one opinion and it comes from their own perspective, bias and knowledge. Contrast this with Amazon, which aggregates reviews, allows guests to rank the usefulness of those reviews, has expert reviewers, has a range of reviewers with a range of experience and background, has suggested reading for me, has related purchases, has recommendations based on past purchases, lets me have wish-lists for others to buy me gifts and lets hold shopping cart items and possible items indefinitely.

As a resource Amazon dwarfs any bookstore I've ever been to, the incredible Powells included. I am 10 times more likely to find something good through Amazon and I get much lower prices to boot.

Yes, you miss the magic of perusing a bookstore, of wandering down the aisles, of the myriad of little surprises, the feeling in the air, the near sanctity of it all... but the reality is that most readers I know still prefer Amazon to their local bookstore when it comes to making purchases, and that is not a good sign for bookstores. They need to find a way to benefit from their ambiance and to compete with Amazon, or they're probably doomed. And we will lose something, if that happens, but we will also gain a lot.

Laurie Mann said...

We do buy a lot from Amazon, but I'm very cautious of their reviews because I remember times when they've been strongly gamed. Even now, you can sometimes browse reviews and read extremely similar reviews on obscure books.

Certainly bookstore employees, who once got freebies, could have been giving advice on books based more on marketing than knowledge.

B. Durbin said...

I worked in a Borders in the early 2000s, and it was run by a general manger who was looking for the qualities you describe—good customer service, knowledgeability about books, local events, and so on. We ran our own highly successful promotions for the things that corporate wanted us to push (I drew many iterations of "Pumpkin Spice", the pretty girl we used to sell coffee!) and had monthly Game Days that enabled us to increase our gaming section from a mere shelf to several shelves and a large display. We also participated in local conventions so that the fantasy and SF crowd knew who we were.

Needless to say, we were the most successful Borders in the region, which included several locations AND a big local bookseller that was such a draw that we didn't even try to put a store near them.

By the time I moved in 2004, there were already cracks showing. The manager said we couldn't have as much input into displays because corporate wanted them all the same. And certain things such as employee benefits were starting to erode. When I applied in my new state of residence, a personal recommendation didn't matter as much as the fact that I wouldn't work the bad shifts. Nevermind that I'd been considered for management; I was a low-level employee who should be happy to work any hours I could get. (I didn't take the job.)

And every time I went to this new Borders, I could see the sloppiness in the way the sections were not managed. I'd also been in the computer section, and while I didn't have as much training as you in computers, I could lay my hands on any book almost from memory, even if the subsection was two books wide.

When I returned to the old homestead for a visit, I ran into one of my old managers at a convention. He was no longer working there, and told me that the general manager had quit and gone off to work with the Chamber of Commerce, who would appreciate his efforts.

If I were to run a bookstore—or ANY type of store—I'd track him down and beg him to work for me. I knew that Borders was going down the drain because they couldn't see what an asset they were losing in folks like him.

Dancer Morris said...

I don't think that Barnes and Noble has handled the general bookstores any better than Borders has. But they do have two advantages: they have the college bookstore division (which is better run than the general bookstore part of the company, they seem to do a much better job of keeping interesting books on the shelves) and the Nook.

Better management might have kept Borders out of Chapter 11, but it wouldn't change the fact that they would still be struggling. And a lot of the missteps were an attempt to keep costs down, in a perhaps misguided attempt to stay competitive with online sellers.

Henry Troup said...

Someplace in the 1980's - pre-Internet, I'm sure - I was regularly in Ann Arbor on business (and at least once on non-business.) Trips to Borders were fit in if possible. I guesss that was what you referred to as the flagship store. It was a great bookstore in those days.

S.H. Segal said...

Sad to lose South Hills Borders. That was my Pittsburgh bookstore mecca circa 1997. Very good sf section. And they had special guests, too -- I met Jane Siberry there.