by Melodie Johnson Howe
Borders is liquidating. Barnes & Noble survived, but not without closing down many of its stores. You could say B & N saw the future of eBooks and Borders didn’t.
I remember the outcry when Borders first opened. This was the wholesaling of books, this was going to ruin all the independents, this was worst thing that could happen to the book world! For most of the independents it was. And as with the eReader , I felt guilty when I went into Borders, and not my local independent.
But Borders proved it was great at selling books. Publishers began to rely on them. Sales reps soon had an editorial say in what would sell and what wouldn’t. In other words, what was published and what wasn’t. Authors and publishers began to rely on the big stores and what they wanted. Borders was cruel for mid-list authors. They didn’t fit into their “big book” concept. Soon many mid-list authors were being dropped as the publishers went greedily along with Borders’ “big is better” thinking.
A novel’s placement in any bookstore is important, but it was hugely significant with Borders. They could make or break an author. Still books that nobody thought would sell did, but these books were not placed in the front of the store. They were hidden in the back under such categories as Human Psychology, or Literature for Dummies.
Never once did I walk into our neighborhood Borders and feel at home. I knew I was supposed to. They had comfy chairs for reading. They had an espresso maker as loud as a train. In fact they had a small cafe where you could buy iced mochas, cookies, and sandwiches. I’m surprised they didn’t cater. The store was filled with people. The young clerks would run around with buds in their ears so they could, I guess, find a book for you by asking the Wizard of Oz. But it was the size of the store that got to me. It was big enough to sell refrigerators or beds and linens. In fact our Borders is now a Marshalls Department Store. It’s a perfect fit.
In Santa Barbara, the homeless loved Borders. They hung out in front around the remaindered or deeply discounted book tables. Some played their guitars and beat their drums to rhythm of the rattled music in their heads. Others lounged at tables I meant for the avid readers/buyers. I remember one lone woman who stayed apart under the shade of a portico where she parked her shopping cart neatly stacked with all the pieces of debris that were important to her. Her face was painfully red and her thin brown hair twisted in clumps around her slumped shoulders. She berated herself endlessly. Then she disappeared, but her cart remained, undisturbed. She stays with me. Borders doesn’t.
What seems to go unmentioned in this demise of the big bookstores is not the clueless clerks, but the managers who tried to bring writers into the stores for signings and talks. In Santa Barbara and Goleta they worked hard to get reader/buyers in. They loved books and authors. They tried to do their best for Borders. But they were small cogs in a giant wheel that wasn’t turning. Decisions were being made far, far away and nobody was listening to the people on the ground. Toward the end Borders began to sell stationery in an email world. The wheel fell over.
I for one am not upset about their demise, except for the thousands of people out of work in a terrible economy. I’m looking forward to the new world of books, whatever that entails. Amazon could care less about what I think, but I suggest they take a good hard look at the dinosaur bones of Borders and remember that it can happen to the biggest.