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.