I come to bury Borders, not the praise it: Part 4, the last

Antony: You all did see that on the Lupercal

I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene ii

I am an unapologetic homer. Having grown up in Michigan, I still root for the Lions, even if they are playing the Bears. I come from a family of Spartans; it is almost impossible for me not to root against the Wolverines. Go Wings! And in my adopted home of Chicago, I unapologetically cheer for the Cubs (since the White Sox are in the same league and division as the Tigers).

And I felt the same way about Borders as a Michigan business. Let’s face it, the state has been in decline since at least the early 1980s. We Michiganders must embrace our homegrown successes when they happen, because they are rare and precious. It’s one of the reasons that when the indies died, Borders became my bookstore of choice wherever I lived.

When I moved to Florida in 1992, I was coming from working for an independent bookseller in Michigan, so I still had the indie-first mentality. Living in West Palm Beach and then Pompano Beach, I adopted Liberties in Boca Raton as my preferred bookstore (it’s where I saw Harry Crews for the first time). But when the original owners sold the store and the new owner ruined it, I soured on Liberties. When I moved to Ft. Lauderdale, they put in a shiny new peach-colored Borders on Sunrise Boulevard next to the canal. I had a new bookstore home. This store is now in the liquidation process.

The Ft. Lauderdale Borders on Sunrise Boulevard

In 2000, I moved to Oak and LaSalle in downtown Chicago. I checked out the Barbara’s Books on Wells, but my favorite bookstore immediately became the Borders on MIchigan and Chestnut, in the middle of the Miracle Mile. My wife traveled a lot for work at that time, so I would often drop off freelance jobs at the FedEx office in the John Hancock Center across Michigan Avenue, and then spend the evening at Borders. It was a great store. It was lost in the February 2011 culling.

When I moved to Rogers Park at the northern edge of Chicago in 2004, my home bookstore became the always convenient Uptown Borders. It was on the Red Line, which I took home every night, and cost me all of twenty-five cents to get off at the Lawrence stop, browse for a while, then get back on the train. It was an example of Borders going into an urban area that was trying to improve, and giving the community a center around books. Yes, you needed to ask for a key to use the bathroom, and the key was attached to to two-foot 2 x 4, but Borders was there. It was another victim of the February 2011 culling.

The now-closed Uptown Borders on N. Broadway at the Lawrence Red Line stop. Picture taken from the EL.

In Paul Constant’s post Books Without Borders about the end of Borders from an insider’s perspective, he pegs the beginning of the end of the Borders to the moment in 2001 when Borders CEO Greg Josefowicz made a deal with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to allow Amazon to handle all of Borders’ online sales. While I believe the rot that would eventually kill Borders began earlier still, Borders starting dying as my personal bookstore shortly after the birth of my son in 2005.

I had long championed Borders as a better chain than Barnes & Noble. Borders was simply more in touch with the readers of Middle America. But I think Borders had one glaring weakness that they never effectively addressed: their children’s section. It was one area of the store that never matched up to B&N or the best independents.

When my son started full-time daycare, I would often pick him up on the train. Walking from the Davis Street Purple Line, I walked right by a Barnes & Noble at the corner of Sherman and Church. On the way back to the Purple Line, my son usually asked if we could stop at Barnes & Noble so we could read books, play with the Thomas trains, and hang out before dinner. My son now does not ask to go to a bookstore. He asks to go to Barnes & Noble.

Evanston’s Borders was a couple blocks away on Maple and Church. We just never warmed to it, even though it was right across the street from the movie theater. It, too, was a victim of the February 2011 culling. We bought a few books there when it was closing, mostly childrens books as gifts.

The Borders store on Church and Maple in Evanston. It was close in February 2011.

If I am reading the list of stores closed in February 2011 correctly, I believe 200 stores with an average footprint of 24,592 square feet were closed then. That equals over 4.9 million square-feet of bookstore retail space. According to a post at Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the final July 2011 liquidation with include 6.3 million square-feet of additional bookstore retail space lost. That is over 11 million square feet lost in less than six months from Borders alone.

I’ve tried to figure out what this really means to publishers and readers. I am going to walk through an exercise that I will admit includes a lot of guess work and rough estimates. Please bear with me, and feel free to comment on these numbers if you have better informaton.

Borders has closed or is closing over 11 million square-feet of bookstore retail space as we head into the 2011 fall lists and Christmas season. Let’s say that in all the square footage, only 25% was used to display books. I think this is low when you look at the density of bookshelves and the number of shelves per unit, but better to err low. I did some unscientific research with a ruler and my own bookshelves and looked at all the metadata I have entered over the past seven month as part of my day-job, and have determined that the average book has a spine of approximately 3/4″. If we assume for argument that a Borders book shelf is one-foot deep and holds a row of books just one-book deep, this means there are on average 16 books to a square foot of display space. (I was surprised as how close this estimate was when I held a foot-long ruler against random sections of bookshelves in my own home.)

So what has been lost to publishers and readers? How about this:

11 million square feet x 25% books display x 16 books/square foot = 44 million copies of books with nowhere to be displayed

Given the lead time on the final Borders liquidation and the feeling right up until the end that some kind of deal would be worked out, I’m not sure how many publishers significantly reduced their initial print runs for fall 2011 titles. I hope it was most of them; I fear it was not enough.

Many publishers had stopped selling directly to Borders over the last year, but Borders was still buying these publishers’ titles from Ingram, and those titles were on Borders shelves. With the final liquidation, the book-buying market is being flooded with undervalued books. Smart book buyers, the ones who love to gives books for gifts, are surely doing early Christmas shopping at the liquidation sales. I think a significant portion of the traditional fall demand for books is being met now, at a reduced price. And these sales are going to Borders creditors who aren’t publishers or book distributors.

With a soft/sputtering economy and highly reduced bookstore retail space heading into Q4, we may be looking at a difficult Christmas for many trade publishers. While there is an opportunity in the marketplace, the likelihood of new bookstores sprouting up before the end of the year is slim; I can’t believe there is much capital available for such a low-margin business. You would hope that the American Booksellers Association would be huddled with Ingram and Baker & Taylor working on some incentive program that would create more bookstores. Alas, these three have been mostly silent.

Forrester media analyst James McQuivey was quoted as saying that Borders liquidation would speed adoption of eBooks. It is possible some print sales will move to digital in the long term, but I think that expecting this still-maturing section of the book market to pick up all these lost print sales is folly.

So what are we do do? I encourage everyone who loves books, everyone who works in publishing, everyone who ever had a fondness for Borders to show up and say good-bye to the chain with a final purchase. Strip the meat from the bones of this retail giant. Then grind the bones (check out those shelving units and tables that are also for sale; if you have the room they are beautiful pieces of furniture and almost bomb proof). Borders isn’t coming back, and I think we are all going to need the sustenance it’s dying corpse has to offer if we are going to get through 2011 Q4 and beyond.

I come to bury Borders, not to praise it: Part 3

Antony: When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene ii

Borders was born in Michigan. I always thought that its place of birth gave it a perspective on publishing that was closer to Middle America’s than Barnes & Noble’s or even Books-a-Million’s. Borders buyers never seemed to be as interested in an author’s pedigree and reputation as they were in whether there were readers who would love a book or be helped by it.

This seemed particularly true during the time I worked at Health Communications, Inc., in Deerfield, Florida. I started at HCI in 1994 as an associate editor. I knew HCI as a recovery and self-help publisher from my time as a bookseller at Young & Welshans (I was responsible for shelving that area of the store). HCI published some of the most influential books in the field at that time, including John Bradshaw’s Bradshaw On: The Family and Healing the Shame That Binds You, Janet Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics and A Struggle for Intimacy, and Charlie Whitfield’s Healing the Child Within and A Gift to Myself. Unfortunately, the federal government and many states had cut funding for in-treatment programs, and as those funds dwindled, there weren’t nearly as many books being purchased by treatment facilities. Sales had fallen at HCI, but that was about to change in a big way.

The only other editor on staff when I began working at HCI was my boss, Christine Belleris, who was the editorial director. We both started just after the publication of the original Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, but before it made it to the New York Times best seller list. One of the first books I worked on was actually A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul. I can remember kerning paragraphs in the book in some new program called QuarkXpress so that the book would fit on 352 pages. Fortunately, Christine and I were green enough and enthusiastic enough not to realize that twenty to twenty-five books a season with two editors and an army of freelancers was insanity. Somehow we survived and had a lot of fun publishing books that changed readers’ lives for the better. It may not have been New York publishing, but we sure found an audience for our books in all those states between New York and L.A.

In May of 1997, we published Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul with Kimberly Kirberger as Jack and Mark’s coauthor. It was the fourth spin-off from the main line (2nd Helpring, 3rd Serving, 4th Course, etc.), and some of us at HCI had our doubts about the likely success of title, or rather the lack of audience. The conventional wisdom at that time was that teens didn’t buy books, certainly not self-help titles. We also had some concerns about Kimberly as a coauthor since she was Jack’s sister and was not a seasoned speaker like other coauthor’s had been.

To say that both Teenage Soul and Kimberly surprised us would be an understatement. Kimberly Kirberger proved to have both an impressive understanding of what would appeal to teenagers and the ability to talk to them in a genuine way that is difficult for many experts. The book was a little slower out of the gate, but once it started running, there was no stopping it. It eventually became one of the best-selling books in the entire line.

In Spring of 1998, I had been promoted to editorial codirector at HCI. We were invited by Borders to come to their Ann Arbor office and talk with them about teen self-help and non-fiction. Terry Burke, our VP of sales and marketing, Jane Bluestein, one of our authors who was a speaker on issues facing kids, education, and parenting, and I planned a trip. We had been thinking about launching an HCI Teens imprint and we thought this would be an opportunity to pitch some book ideas to Borders buyers and see if they were interested.

I can no longer remember the names of the Borders staff who met with us that day. What I do remember is that after we floated a couple ideas by them, they cut us off and presented us with the following: They felt there was a need for teen non-fiction and self-help. They were preparing to add a section for teen non-fiction in all their stores. And they were expecting us to provide titles to fill those shelves.

It was clear that Borders was willing to buy-in any titles we published for teens. This relieved any concern about launching an imprint for teens and for publishing more titles on issues facing adolescents. We returned to the office and starting building a list of teen titles.

Over the next few years, we built a solid list of books for teens. Borders opened this door to us, and we were able to fill their shelves with books that helped a huge number of kids dealing with the issues of low self-esteem, poor body image, unhealthy relationships, destructive family dynamics, questions about their faith, and addictions. I’m sure we weren’t the only publisher Borders approached, as the industry had a mini-eruption of teen-oriented titles during this time.

It still amazes me that Borders reached out in this way. They were confident we could deliver books that would truly speak to teens, and their confidence gave us the push we needed to make it happen. In a way, this was the beginning of the growth of teen books, as these books moved from the children’s/YA area into it’s own space. Other booksellers followed Borders lead, but it was Borders that established these books in the market and sustained them.

It was initiatives like this that made Borders feel like a true trading partner for publishers. Borders worked with publishers to find the books their customers wanted and needed, and to put those books on Borders store shelves.

I come to bury Borders, not to praise it: Part 2

Antony: But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene ii

In the fall of 1989 I was back home from Michigan State and trying to figure out what an English literature degree was worth in Flint, Michigan. At the time, it didn’t seem like it had a whole lot of value (I’m not sure that has changed). After looking for options and not finding many, my sister-in-law mentioned that Young & Welshans Books, Flint’s best bookstore, was hiring. Since I’d worked at the Community News Center in East Lansing during college, I was pretty sure this was one job I was qualified to do.

Young & Welshans was a brightly lit, 5,000 square-foot independent that was one of the retail jewels of Flint at the time; it was also a cultural beacon in the city that was losing many of the ones it had. Y&Ws had originally been located in downtown Flint, but as the downtown died and foot traffic dried up, Roger Welshans (a journalist for the Flint Journal in his previous career) and his wife moved the store to Miller Road, Flint’s destination shopping area due to the Genesee Valley Mall.

Like many bookstores at the time, Young & Welshans was staffed by people who loved books. Roger hired me, and I felt right at home.

When I worked on Commie News, the inventory system it employed was on index cards. Cards on shelves behind each title told how many copies had been ordered. When the card was visible, it was time to reorder. The sales history of the book was on the card, and heaven forbid if a customer used a card as a bookmark when browsing and walked out with it. We also had a microfiche reader where we could look up titles and to see if they were in stock at Baker & Taylor or Ingram and could be special ordered. Special orders took ten to fourteen days to arrive.

It was clear from the start that book buying was done differently at Young & Welshans. First, there were actual computers in the store (one at the front desk, one in special ordering, and one in the back room). Second, there was an actual plan for managing ordering and inventory. A plan based on something called Book Inventory Systems (BIS).

I quickly learned that Y&Ws was one of fourteen successful Michigan and Ohio independent bookstores using BIS. Other stores included Borders, Jocundry’s in East Lansing, Schuler Books in East Lansing and Grand Rapids, John Rollins in Kalamazoo, Thackeray’s in Toledo, and Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Ohio. BIS allowed independent booksellers to order and receive books faster than had been possible before its creation. Stores were able to create daily pull lists and pick up the books at the BIS warehouse in Ann Arbor. Even more interesting, BIS was a wholesale business owned by and prototyped at Borders. I figured if I wasn’t working for Borders, this was the next best thing.

After a few months at Y&Ws, the right person quit and I found myself with a new responsibility: driving the company van down to BIS every Tuesday morning to take back returns and pick up our orders. Finally, I had a chance to see behind the curtain.

BIS was set up like any large warehouse. There were boxes of books organized on racks, and people with pull lists filled orders. It seemed like every time I picked up books the whole operation was a little bigger.

When I finally had reason to enter the offices off the warehouse, it was even more exciting. There were buyers in cubicle with stack of books, and all of them seemed terribly busy with important work. There was also a cork board with pictures of the progress of each new Borders store as it was built. And every month or so, there was another store on the board.

The years from 1985 to 1994 were a golden period for independent bookselling, especially in Michigan, with the model Borders provided and the technical advantage BIS offered. There seemed to be big independent stores in all the major cities in the state, most of them powered by BIS. The Michigan Booksellers Association (since folded into the Great Lakes Booksellers Association) was growing, and Roger Welshans was even president for a couple terms during that time.

As a bookseller, it was incredibly powerful to be able to tell customers that you could get them books that weren’t on the shelves, and usually get them in a couple days thanks to BIS. It gave us a step up on the chains (at that time B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Little Professor), and made Young & Welshans a destination shopping spot with hundreds of loyal and frequent customers.

Before I left Young & Welshan’s in 1992, the cash registers were replaced with computers and the entire store inventory was tracked through the point of sale. From the front desk, we could tell if a book was on the shelf (or should be) or when we expected it to be in stock. This was another huge change that made bookselling even better.

In 1994, Borders shuttered BIS, or rather rolled it into the growing Borders chain growth. The independents who had relied on BIS for their business infrastructure had the benefit of a short-term non-compete agreement, but in five years many were closed or having trouble competing when Borders eventually rolled into their towns.

Young & Welshans was one of the stores that couldn’t compete. The store had expanded and added a cafe around the time I left, which I suspect but a strain on the cash flow at the wrong time. Every time I was back in town and visited the inventory would be a little less, the open shelves a little more. It didn’t help that when Borders put their store in on the other side of Miller Road a half mile away, one of the long-time managers jumped ship.

The model that Borders offered through BIS made many good independent bookstores into great bookstores. And for many years, Borders was able to expand the BIS model and give communities throughout the country a wonderful bookstore where there had not been one before, this time with the Borders name on the sign instead of a local business.

I come to bury Borders, not to praise it: Part 1

Antony: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest, —
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men, —
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene ii

As we are in the final liquidation of Borders remaining stores, much has been written about how this national bookstore chain juggernaut ended up in bankruptcy and liquidation. This is not a post about why, but rather a look at what was lost on the way to this ultimate demise. Replace Caesar with Borders above, and I will tell you, “The noble Literary Pundits / Hath told you Borders was ambitious: / If it were so, it was a grievous fault; / And grievously hath Borders answer’d it.” I will also say this, “Borders was my friend, faithful and just to me,” at least for many years.

The first time I remember entering the doors of the original flagship Borders in Ann Arbor, MI, was during my college years, the best I can remember the summer of 1988. I was an English literature major at Michigan State University, heading into my senior year in the fall, working at the East Lansing Community (Commie) News while hanging out with other writers, poets, and artistes. We had organized local readings and writing groups and thought we were at the beginning of what would surely be auspicious careers as writers, editors, and publishers.

East Lansing had it’s fair share of good bookstores at that time. There was Jocundry’s, Curious Book Shop, and Schuler Books up by Meridian Mall. (It was only a few years later that I discovered the connection between Jocundry’s, Schuler Books, and Borders, but that will have to wait for Part 2.) Between these stores and Commie News, I could find most of what I wanted to read, including almost everything Bukowski had written. The two stores in East Lansing were “cozy” in size, and Schuler Books was a car or bus ride away, so there were still gaps in what was easily attainable.

One day that summer, our crew decided we should all pile in a car and go to Ann Arbor to hit the bookstores. It may have been during the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, though I am no longer certain of that. I know we hit the Dawn Treader Book Shop and a couple other used stores. The biggest revelation, however, was the Borders store on State Street. It was literally like walking into an English major’s fantasy. There were books upon books upon books, all new and clean and fresh.

One of the first things I noticed was that past the tables near the front doors were low-slung bookshelves full of poetry books. This bears repeating: the first shelves of books after entering the store and passing the front of store displays were poetry books. Rows and rows of poetry books. I would guess there were thirty feet of bookshelves devoted just to poetry. I was at a loss to think of one coveted volume that did not reside on those shelves. It was simply amazing to me, a book person. The store had clearly been merchandised by a madman.

I don’t know how long we browsed Borders’ aisles that day, but it was hours. I left with copies of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, Gregory Corso’s Elegiac Feelings American, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, and others.

The Borders employees of that time were all cut from what seemed like similar cloth. They were whip smart, deeply knowledgeable about books, and slightly arrogant. In other words, they didn’t belong in retail, but they belonged in Borders. And they would help you find just what you were looking for; it just might cost you a slice of your dignity.

Borders was a bookstore that made me think: I want to work here. I want to be one of these people. I’m not sure there is a stronger statement a retail store can make to its customers.