Tuesday, February 22, 2011


This may seem a little off from my typical entertainment blogs, but books were escapist entertainment long before music, TV and movies. Tonight I'm discussing the Borders bankruptcy, what it means to me, a former retail bookseller and the future of bookstores in general.

Last week Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They are immediately closing 200 stores and likely more to come. Thousands of layoffs will come with.

Plenty of better sources and blogs have traced the history of Borders/Waldenbooks and what led to this, so I won't rehash that. I, however, spent nearly 8 years working for Waldenbooks, during which I witnessed much of the corporate B.S. that destroyed a once strong franchise.

Despite abhorrently low pay and seeing some of the worst that the public had to offer, I loved that job. More importantly, I loved my store. To many of my customers, I was "the Waldenbooks Guy." I knew their preferences, I knew their names...it was corporate retail, but I wanted my store to feel as independent and friendly as possible.

Believe it or not, we had the same problems that independents did. When superstores like Wal-Mart and Meijer started selling books at deep discounts, we couldn't compete and we wouldn't price-match. But eventually, we did start trying. The prices of new hardcovers climbed into the $30 range, but the discounts went to 40% or more and it still wasn't enough. We started hawking candy, DVDs, music, lip balm...the checkout counter space was a battlefield of "build the basket" impulse items.

While upselling and piling on is the name of any sales game, a noticeable transition occurred from helping your patrons find the best books for their tastes and making sure that your metrics looked good at the end of the day by pushing any little trinket you could find. Terms like A$T (average dollars per transaction) and UPT (units per transaction) were discussed more often than "I made that woman smile and walk out the door excited to read that book."

The desire to make every store look and feel the same may have been the beginning of the end in my mind. Thick merchandising books were sent to us every month with explicit details on where to position books each week...how to fill front of store wallbays, the A-frames that greeted customers on entry, even titles that should be featured in the window. My last manager and I often defied this thinking, opting to features titles that were actually popular for our area, local authors and books we genuinely liked. Upper management always frowned upon this. "People want to feel like every store is their local store." Except that when every store looks the same, there's nothing "local" about it.

I became disgruntled after getting passed over for promotion to take over my own store on several occasions. When a Borders superstore came to my area, I immediately applied. After three lengthy interviews I was finally offered a position...as the cafe manager...without a raise. Eight years of bookselling experience...I even trained three managers...and they wanted me to run their coffee shop?

I don't even drink coffee.

I left the Walden/Borders family in late 2005. My mall-based store, long rumored to become a Borders Express, closed down a couple years later. That Borders is not on the initial chopping block and I still shop there. I usually enter by the cafe and chuckle at the bullet I dodged. (Ironically...or not, I still work with books, now in textbook publishing.)

A lot of questions have loomed about what this means for brick and mortar bookstores. With the rise of digital books and online shopping, does the demise of Borders (assuming this is the first sounding of a death-knell) signal the end of browsing for titles, covers or synopses that excite the senses and beg to be read? Maybe...I admit I'm still old-fashioned enough to like the idea of randomly stumbling on a great book or CD, but still techno-savvy enough to like the concept of an eReader and find music on the internet.

Am I the last of a generation that feels sharing the bookstore experience is vital to the reading experience?


  1. Good post.

    I'm discovering that I read a lot more when I can get the book instantly and read it on a screen. So I won't mourn the death of any bookstore, except in a nostalgic passage-of-time way.

    The last time I was at B&N, I spent $40 on a Settlers game I couldn't find anywhere else. I didn't even buy a book.

  2. I'm not completely averse to the idea of e-books, but I'm not going to rush out and buy a kindle anytime soon. I still like browsing through the aisles at B&N, seeing what kind of deals I can find in the clearance section towards the front. I'm sure the day will come when I have to buy some sort of device to download my books, but until then, I'm sticking with the paper variety.

    (Sorry trees).

    Remember the mall music store? They're pretty much gone. I can remember when there was one little section with CDs at those stores; they seemed SOOOO high-tech and exotic to me as I browsed through cassette singles...

  3. I worked in that same Waldenbooks for a while, then spent a few years in a Border's airport store, and share the same feelings you have for the entire experience: as ridiculous as some of the decisions that came down from corporate were, and as exasperating as most of my superiors were, and as burnt out and bitter as I was towards the end, overall I still loved that job, and my store.

    I think the days of big corporate brick and mortar chain stores are probably numbered. Its only a matter of time before e-readers do to books what file sharing and mp3s did to music. But I think there will be a place for independent stores for a while yet. They'll just do what alot of used music stores have done:set up where there's cheap rent, diversify the hell out of the product you carry in the store, and make the most you can out of selling to a niche market.