Searching for the Right Response to Borders Closing

Elizabeth Bluemle -- July 21st, 2011

It’s tricky to field Borders-related comments and questions from customers, and even trickier to figure out how to reach out to Borders customers as an indie bookseller, without seeming graceless or unworthily triumphant. It is not a good thing to lose bookstores from neighborhoods, regardless of their provenance, and seeing good people lose their jobs through no fault of their own is truly disheartening.

And yet, there is an opportunity here that bricks-and-mortar stores can’t ignore: the opportunity to reach a new audience, a soon-to-be unserved audience. We want to bring them into the bookstores that are still standing — OUR bookstores, full of deep book knowledge and expertise and amazing selection — instead of relinquishing them to online sales gobblers that don’t put money back into the communities of their customers.

How do we do that most effectively, and without any schadenfreude?

14 thoughts on “Searching for the Right Response to Borders Closing

  1. Patty Cryan & Michael Salvo

    There’s a lot being said in this thread in a little space.

    First, there’s a lot to agree with, in the fact a Borders failure does not mean we have somehow succeeded or triumphed, and we shouldn’t make the mistake of declaring victory somehow to our customers. Where we are located in Worcester, MA, there has been a series of recent failures by indy booksellers, and the latest, Ben Franklin Bookstore, had an owner set to retire, who then lost his store in a fire a few weeks ago. Customers mentioning it to us and suggesting this is somehow going to help us are often surprised to hear how we feel this is a loss to everyone. And it is such a loss. By comparison, Borders’ closing seems trivial, because it cannot match the fact of losing a life’s work. There is no corporate “soul” that is wounded with the Borders closures, and executives will move on, well-rewarded for failing, and
    having a bankrupcy impact various vendors or bondholders to whom they owed money, who, in turn, will now just have a harder road in front of them,
    and who will have to pass along added costs to the rest of us. That’s no victory.

    There is also the loss of those 11,000 jobs, and no matter what we think of Borders or the overall quality of those employees, I’m sure there were some who tried hard, learned the trade, and don’t deserve an unemployment line in a
    challenging economy as a reward for their honest efforts. Finding the cream of that crop locally, if you are inclined to hire, is an opportunity, too.

    And there is opportunity…a promotion for 10% off by turning in your defunct Borders Rewards cards seems a stroke of genius. Let’s make all we can of this, and start new relationships with customers returning from the Borders Universe. Let’s start relationships that last decades, and not the mere minutes involved in going on-line elsewhere, to some merchant even more impersonal than Borders was.

    However, we think there is greater opportunity, and it’s something we should have been looking at the book trade to change even before Borders’ demise. Borders did not fail because of one or two little things, and for all the discussion
    here, it’s fairly obvious there is consensus Borders received huge advantage, perhaps unfair advantage, in “economies of scale.” Wal-mart, Amazon, and a few others, still see this on too-regular a basis. In turning Harry Potter from a
    financial savior for some into a loss-leader when the last few titles came out is how “things are done,” and, driven by the same short-sighted hyper-corporate bad behavior that even a privileged Borders couldn’t survive, we now need to
    collectively start telling the publishing industry and wholesalers to stop tilting the scales so heavily in favor of their few largest customers they destroy the rest. Surely, it’s smart business to get the best price you can, but Amazon almost always gets prices we can’t. We don’t begrudge even them a few extra percent or negotiating a little better deal, but when it’s all the time, on everything, with discounts that allow them to profit when offering direct-to-retail
    discounts below the price even our wholesalers get on the cream of the year’s releases, it’s not just a matter of how it impacts my local competitors, it’s a matter of how it will kill all competition completely and forever. And when they
    want to use this to literally destroy competition, how would we compete? Smart publishers should realize right now if even Borders couldn’t make it, the playing field is too tilted.

    Along with this, in shopping a Borders during a liquidation sale, we were still amazed how much wasn’t selling at 60%, 70%, even 80% off retail price. As a symptom of our challenges, we see even at those discounts, price points make books a tough sell. $26.95 for a new hardcover. $7.99 or $9.99 for new paperbacks. Customers look at the value proposition. Borders lost customers sometimes simply because books are darned expensive, and when consumers look to cut expenses, especially in a tight economy, overpriced books are easy to justify deleting from their budgets. And, with the market as it now exists, needing still to compete with Amazon, how many actually charge cover or suggested retail price? Its only meaning now is a point from which to compare discounts. What that actually means is books cost enough to scare away consumers. Where we don’t set those SRP’s, we should all be making the point to publishers we would sell far more, and help our long-term health, if we had more affordable offerings. It’s their opportunity to take advantage of the
    lessons of Borders and not get left behind. And to make sure we’re not left behind with them.

    With this, there are also “exclusives.” Special printings going to single, large sellers, with the idea it’s of advantage to them, and they somehow deserve the right to spend money to gain this advantage. But, exclusives just live up to their name. Exclusives exclude. And when most of us can’t get certain titles, and our loyal customers are frustrated they’re not allowed to shop with us to get what they want, we often lose not only that immediate sale, but all future sales from a customer who, rightly, does not want to play this game to acquire a book, or any other entertainment item we might be carrying. (Can you imagine going to your local supermarket and hearing you can’t get lettuce because it’s an exclusive this month? Why does the book trade need to see this as a constant? It’s simply not healthy!) If you want to do something that is “exclusive,” think “special” instead…like offering a book signing, having an author who, on a given day for a certain time, is exclusive to your store…but who will also give something special to customers, readers, beyond a fancy dust-jacket and a higher price to merchandise.

    In an age where it’s even possible for Borders to fail, we have to tell publishers there is a definite, perhaps desperate need for them to value the smaller retailers who give customer service beyond what an Amazon bot will give in suggesting other purchases. Wal-mart, for all its buying power, carries best-sellers and some magazines, but we’ve never seen a staffer in there who knows anything about books…far worse than the stereotype fronted here about Borders. Typically, we don’t even see any staff within 50 feet of
    their books sections. Can you even talk to a human at Amazon before a
    purchase?…we don’t believe so. If we want to get and keep the readers Borders no longer serves, and if we want to grow and remain healthy, we need the upper part of our supply chain to hear this message and embrace it, and not just tell us how “sales are down” and there’s nothing to be done. There’s plenty to be done, but apparently it takes some daring to step away from the safe justifications of the corporate sales model and remember how customer service usually trumps the impersonal. Setting price where customers feel they’re getting better value also always helps. The future health of book selling rests with the Indies, not Amazon, and that’s just truth.

    Finally, Borders didn’t close only because they didn’t have a stronger web presence. Even if their web site was a factor, it was only that. For many of us, it hasn’t closed us down, even though we don’t have Amazon’s money machine backing web site development. Part of our opportunity is not to be cowed by these events, by the larger competitors still in the field, and to stop living in fear of the internet. There is some evolution. There’s no denying it and no changing it. But, equally, that doesn’t mean we’re suddenly losing physical books. There’s a place for both. Let e-books happen. Many of those sales are going to happen to folks who weren’t shopping in brick and mortars anymore anyway. Amazon may happen to be in position to handle e-book sales, but books have been in peoples’ hands in one form or another for
    thousands of years, and that will remain preferable to many, if not most, in the years ahead. There’s a generational change. If that gets more people reading, perhaps we’ll win some of that audience into our stores and benefit, too. Books are part of Western democracies, and hitting the panic button saying we’re going to lose them is the wrong approach.

    The sky isn’t falling. Only Borders is. And on a clear day we can all still see forever.

  2. JuleS

    My response is, “good riddance!” I feel for the almost 11,000 people who are losing their jobs, but as far as the company itself — not a bit of sympathy or remorse.

    For two decades or more, Borders and its big-box, corporate-greedy ilk were more than happy to do what they could to drive indie bookstores (“the competition”) out of business, so Borders’ demise is sweet revenge for all the those former booksellers who now work at Home Depot or a gas station.

    Everyone was sure quick to howl about Walmart’s driving small retailers out of business, so where were the same pointed fingers of blame for Borders? Almost nowhere to be found.

    I’ve read many comments from people crying about how their local Borders was such a haven for reading and repose. Maybe they should visit a real bookstore — an indie bookstore, where the staff hand-sells books and can actually recommend titles to readers — and discover a real reading haven. Hell, I could rarely find anyone at a Borders who could direct me to the books I was looking for, much less knew anything about more than the one or two titles they had read in their entire lives.

    Now that the rest of the Borders stores are closing, perhaps a few more indie bookstores will be able to keep their doors open — and that’s a very happy consequence.

  3. Doret

    Maybe Indie’s can run a promotion, offering a 10% off to customers that turn in their Borders Rewards cards to their stores.

    I finally just threw mines away and it was harder then it should’ve been. I suppose because its been on my keychain forever.

    If my local indie ran a special I would’ve taken it off with the quickness. It would feel nice to get unexpected something. I’ve already purchased three books in so many months and I would be tempted again.

  4. Linda

    Makes me want to stand outside the Borders in Burlington with copies of IndieNext and a map of Vermont independents. Maybe a coupon for a Get-to-know-us 10% off?

    I hate losing Borders. I shopped at the original indie in Ann Arbor and respected the chain when it was small. I hate that there is one less bookseller in the mix. But I hold out hope that some of its customers will find indies that they did not know before.

  5. Christine

    The worst thing about the Borders closing is the loss of jobs, otherwise the various management entities Borders suffered through had the company dying a death by a thousand cuts for years. [And as a nearby Ann Arbor resident it’s been my ‘privilege’ to watch it happen.] You’re a lot more polite than some independent bookstores within this area who are practically singing ‘ding dong, the witch is dead.’

    If you can afford to hire an ex-employee, that’s great; if you advertise in some fashion like The Book Table–good for you. Frankly, I don’t see much difference in pushing shopping locally for books at independent retailers than I do for shopping locally at farmers’ markets and independent grocery stores. Do you see complaints about adding to the local economy when it comes to food? Isn’t there a locavore movement? Why not for books?

  6. Morgan

    The same people who regularly go into bookstores to browse for books that they then buy online, sometimes right there in the store, are the same ones who bemoan the disappearance of bookstores, and see no irony in that. People! If you don’t buy books in bookstores, they WILL disappear. It’s as simple as that. If you want them to survive, then fork over some cash and help out. It’s not always about getting the cheapest price. There are few better community resources than your local bookstore. Shop in them and they will stick around.

  7. Doret

    Hi Andrea,

    You might try posting the openings at Borders LiveJournal. You’d be casting a wide net but you never know maybe someone once a fresh start in a new state.

    Do still scope out your local Borders. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. Your going with the intention of giving someone a new job.
    If there is a children’s specialist there’s usually only one. Just keep a lookout for the employee the parents keep on saying goodbye to.

    Even if there isn’t an expert books are books and we adapt well. But do remember the quality of the staff with vary store to store.

    I hope you get a few great new hires and customers.

  8. maire

    I live in the Chicagoland area, and I receive a lot of bookstore newsletters (including Amazon, Powells, Borders, BN, The BookTable and The Book Cellar). Jason and Rachel from The BookTable in Oak Park sent out a wonderful newsletter after the news broke about Borders that addressed the myriad emotions that came with the news, you can read it here: http://booktable.net/book-table-after-borders

    As a book reader and patron to bookstores both indie and chain, brick and mortar and virtual, I appreciated what they said, and I have sent the email to a number of friends, especially those who might not have thought to stop into the BookTable because Borders was their place to go. I think your regulars will be one of your best allies, bringing in their friends and family who are bookstore-orphaned by Borders closing. Include a note in your newsletter. If there are community websites or print periodicals, you might think to include an op-ed or article that says just what you did above. It’s a sad day when another brick and mortar store closes, and you want to remind those book lovers and book readers that there are wonderful stores that are ripe for discovery.

    1. Jen

      Could you please post the text from that note? Work has blocked certain sites; The Book Table’s was blocked because it is “shopping.” Thanks!

      1. Ellen

        Jen – here you go.

        The Book Table after Borders
        Submitted by mail@booktable.net on Tue, 07/19/2011 – 1:27pm

        Dear Customers,

        We expect a lot of people to pass through The Book Table over the next few weeks who will want to chat with us about the Borders liquidation. Most of you probably expect us have a lot of strong opinions on the subject, and we do: we have many volumes to say, but they might not all be the things you expected.

        First and foremost, we will say flat out: we are not celebrating. Eleven thousand fellow booksellers out of work is a dark day for all of us in the book industry. It’s a dark day for publishing when there are 400 fewer outlets for books, when our friends in the already beleaguered publishing industry will face even more rounds of layoffs. It’s a sad day for bricks and mortar, when there are that many more people who will turn to the internet, most specifically to one company-to Amazon-to fill their shelves or e-readers with books. It’s a sad day for reading when there are fewer communities with bookstores, a place where someone might stumble upon a book to read who otherwise might have gone home to their television or their internet connection for entertainment and companionship. Frankly, speaking as two people who have each worked in the industry for close to two decades, it is just plain devastating.

        There is no doubt: Borders changed the industry landscape in the 90s, in some arguably good ways, some bad. We spent most of the 90s working at various independent bookstores in the Lakeview and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. One by one, Borders encroached on them, one by one they closed. So no, we are not without resentment for the company. We are not without criticism of the way they chose to operate over the years, both to the detriment of publishing, and to the detriment of themselves. The company expanded rampantly over the years in the name of an attractive balance sheet, with little thought to any underlying stability. They taught their customers to shop on Amazon rather than develop their own website. They made many mistakes. But at their best, they opened stores where no other bookstore existed for miles around, providing unprecedented access to a wide range of titles in smaller, underserved communities, and that is no small thing.

        Of course, we hope we can pick up some of the business that Borders leaves behind. But we do not delude ourselves into thinking that we will be the winners in this situation. Many Borders customers will head to their nearest Barnes & Noble; a vast number will turn to Amazon. For many, simply picking up the latest bestsellers while at Target or Costco will satisfy their needs. For some this may even push them into adopting e-books. We will likely pick up a percentage of the business as well, but we are well aware we don’t have the name recognition or even a fraction of the capacity to take over what Borders provided for Oak Park.

        We do want to take this opportunity, however, to address our customers and to say thank you. Thank you for supporting us. Thank you for supporting a bricks and mortar bookstore. Through sales tax, through donations, through our programs and activities, we work to actively enrich Oak Park and its surrounding communities. We are endlessly grateful to all of you for welcoming us and allowing us to have our little niche in an industry we adore.

        We would also like to ask of you at this moment, very simply, to think about what is good for your community when you choose where and how to shop. Think about what your sales taxes pay for. Think about what kind of community you want to live in, not online but right here in the analog world. And remember us if you decide to go digital: it is not synonymous with shopping with Amazon or other major chains. We have affordably priced Google eBooks on our website (which are compatible with most everything as long as you forgo the Kindle, and instead choose any of the other numerous excellent devices available).

        In the coming months, we will be reaching out to all of you to consider how we can better serve the community in Borders’ wake. Please consider our ears open and willing to listen to your suggestions in the meantime.

        Sincerely,

        Rachel Weaver & Jason Smith

        The Book Table

  9. Katharine Nevins

    We were approached by New England Cable Network out of Boston on Tuesday and asked if they could come up and do a story. The link to that story follows, as well as our store commentary which we plan to add onto our website later today.
    http://www.necn.com/07/19/11/Borders-bookstore-chain-closing-will-ben/landing_business.html?blockID=542350&feedID=4209

    Books Without Borders

    Your area independent booksellers continue on through this difficult economy and rapidly changing book landscape, because we are family-owned businesses working where we live. We proudly continue to provide the best books for entertainment and learning, always adjusting our individualized inventories to provide for the needs of our customers. We are not “big boxes” controlled by a faraway corporate office, sending our income out of state. We are rather a merry kaleidoscope of book lovers, with each storefront reflecting and supporting our unique communities, keeping alive our culture’s rich and long history of enjoying books, entertainment and connecting with our neighbors.

    We are seeing a movement, a huge shift in understanding our economy. The Big Boxes are closing, reflecting a groundswell trend of people moving back to supporting their local, independent businesses to help revitalize their local economies. As we shift to become more committed to supporting our local farmers, refocusing on healthier food, so we also move toward supporting our local businesses, a happy return to nourishing and nurturing the communities that support and define us. So onward and upward. Visit us and our stores, check out our websites, spread the word; Eat local, Read local, Keep it Local!

    Katharine Nevins
    MainStreet BookEnds of Warner
    16 East Main Street
    Warner, NH 03278
    603-456-2700
    http://www.mainstreetbookends.com

    Yankee Magazine’s “Editors’ Pick – Must See” Book Store in New England
    New Hampshire Magazine’s “Best Community Book Store in New Hampshire”

  10. Doret

    After years of working at Borders I had a lot of regular customers. Once the store closed no opportunities opened up and I had no where to take them. I think a few started shopping at BN which wasn’t too far away

    For the first week of the closing, you might try scouting the staff. Many will have regulars of their own. Customers will be going in to say goodbye and thank you to the booksellers that have them helped over the years.

    If there’s someone that will fit in at your store, go back the next week and quietly ask them if they would like a job.

    Be honest with them and let them know why your offering the job. If you don’t have many hours be up front about it. If they say no, still give them your card.

    Hopefully the employee you like will have a few requlars to bring with them. Even if they say no, if they like your approach they might still tell some of their customers about your bookstore.

    The earlier you get in touch with an employee the better. That will give them a chance to tell more of their regulars about your bookstore.

    1. Andrea

      Hi Doret-
      I was also wondering if there was any kind of a list-serve for Borders employees? We will have a few positions opening up mid-August, and I’d like to post something. Do you know of one?
      Thanks-

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