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?