Numbers that Make You Go Ouch
So, Borders is basically dead-and-nearly-gone, what with their liquidation starting tomorrow and almost 11,000 employees losing their jobs in the next few weeks. This was a long time in coming, and is a surprise to no one.
That said, it’s a tricky thing to formulate an adequate response to. On the one hand, over the past few years Borders became a shitty big-box soulless retail outlet. I hesitate to even use the word “bookstore,” since that implies a level of care and attention beyond simply clerking sales and pyramiding crappy titles in entranceways. The only difference between Borders and Best Buy was in product margins. And volume of customers, I suppose.
But seriously, the chain trend has always been a troubling one, since there’s everything great about making more books available to more people. I would’ve flipped my shit if there had been a B&N or Borders in Essexville when I was growing up. (Those were dire times that I’ve since made up for by accumulating a National Debt’s worth of unread books.) And historically, Borders was more dedicated to having a deep backlist and a solid selection than their rivals. (See the series of interviews with Borders folks that appeared in the Review of Contemporary Fiction some time back.)
At the same time, these stores replaced quirky hometown bookshops with an offensive homogeneity that I was never completely comfortable with. It’s easy to play the cynic in relation to this sort of crap retail environment and complain that B&N is ruining the taste of Americans by force-feeding Twilight knock-off shit down the throats of anyone who wanders in the front doors. Not to mention that all the table space and end-cap displays and other promotional fixtures are paid for by publishers. I’m always shocked when people are shocked to find this out. Of course these promotions are paid for! There are very few pure things left in this hypercapitalist world, and books have such nonexistent profit margins that these stores had to milk what little they could milk.
That all said, the first bookstore I worked in was technically Borders Store #04. Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids was one of the first stores in the country that used Borders’ inventory, ordering, and POS systems, but had its own retail identity. In many ways, it was the perfect bookstore set-up: There was no true competition (Borders couldn’t have a store within 50 miles and the local B&N was a rundown joke), the costs were lower than they would be if the store did it’s own buying and account maintenance, and employees were encouraged to be too well-read and too smart and somewhat snarky and all of the great things that make up that special bookseller aura of the mid-90s.
But to the point: Borders released info on their last operating quarter yesterday and this is some pretty bleak shit.
Losses were $1.5 million; without gains from reorganization items and income taxes factored in, that number would have risen to $20.6 million. The value of Borders’s inventory was $431.7 million; total assets were $696.5 million, with total liabilities of over $1 billion.
And this from a massive company that leveraged certain advantages, like bulk purchasing, advertising money, national recognition, etc.
A while back I hypothesized that when Borders tanked (and really, this has been years in the making), there would be a rise in indie bookselling. I still really, truly hope that is the case, and I have heard from a number of bookstores whose sales have jumped recently, because of Borders and because of general increases in book sales. This is very encouraging and very interesting, but to play devil’s advocate against myself, all of these stores are in major metropolitan retailers.
That fits well with other indie bookselling trends I’ve noticed over the past years. Some of the greatest “new” stores—like WORD, Greenlight, Idlewild, etc.—are all quirky, curated, awesomely informed, out-of-the box thinking, socially savvy stores that happen to be in the NY area. There is one solid indie bookstore within 50 miles of Rochester, NY, and that’s Lift Bridge Books, a nice store, especially if you like kids books. They don’t carry Open Letter titles, which is that irritating truth for a lot of indie bookstores. Margins are too tight, they can’t take risks, etc., etc. So realistically, if an indie store opened here next year, it’s likely that it would stock all the same books that you could get everywhere else.
We do have a decent B&N here in town where residents can browse and buy all Open Letter titles. And that’s really the crux of the problem. Borders was a space for selling books. Yes, online retailing allows for a press like ours to reach a much larger potential audience, but I think our culture is enriched when there’s a lot of ways to interact with, find out about, and purchase books. Maybe libraries will fill in some of these gaps, or maybe everyone will use their iPads to virtually check things out and virtually communicate with each other.
Anyway, this PaidContent post about the Borders aftermath is pretty interesting and contains a few harsh points:
What does this mean for publishers and authors?
It’s unequivocally bad news for publishers and authors. Bottom line: The closure of Borders means fewer places to sell books (and promote books and book discovery). Publishers will have to reduce their print runs and shipments, and, as the NYT‘s DealBook pointed out, may have to lay off employees who worked only with Borders. Borders’ closure is particularly bad for paperback sales: it “was known as a retailer that took special care in selling paperbacks, and its promotion of certain titles could propel them to best-seller status.” Independent booksellers, counterintuitively, could also be harmed by Borders’ closing: In the Providence Journal, one independent bookseller feared that publishers, squeezed for cash, will be less able to extend discounts to indies.
Who is losing the most money from Borders’ liquidation?
Publishers. Penguin alone is owed more than $41 million. See our list of the biggest losers from the Borders bankruptcy.
Given the fact that Borders never bought any of our books (they’ve been on credit hold since the formation of Open Letter), this won’t impact us much at all. That said, I’m torn between being gleeful in my typical anti-corporate, anti-culture homogenization, anti-box store way, and feeling bad that we’re losing hundreds of spaces where readers of all ages could find out about books. I know that books aren’t going away, and that the internet and ebooks and edevices will be filling in some of this, but that’s something a bit different. Not better or worse per se, just different. All of this is what makes this a pretty interesting moment for publishing . . . and provides a chance to wax nostalgic about recent eras in bookselling.