It’s April and where are the fools?

No, this isn’t an April’s Fools Day post although I had to read he basis for it twice before realizing that the person was being absolutely serious. It was yet another post bemoaning and bewailing all the “harm” Amazon has done to booksellers. This particular person is partner in an online bookstore that was begun some years ago for two purposes — to create a niche market for a very small and very specific type of book and to then create “serious competition” for Amazon. But, as with most plans, nothing turned out as planned.

The biggest stumbling block, the owners found out, came when the publishers would not work with them. Seems they didn’t want anything to do with this new upstart. Some unnamed person in some unnamed publisher’s digital content department supposedly told them off the record that the reason the publisher wouldn’t work with them was because they couldn’t put DRM on that publisher’s books — just like Amazon did. So, see, suddenly the enemy is Amazon again, not the publisher, because 1) Amazon could attach proprietary DRM based on the Kindle, 2) Amazon could sell books for less and 3) Amazon is evil. Okay, I added that last one.

Now, I can see the publisher’s agent, especially if this was one of the major legacy publishers, saying they wanted DRM added. The fact that these publishers still believe that sans DRM their books will be pirated left and right is no secret. However, this points up an issue with the niche seller. They weren’t prepared for this demand. The first problem is that they didn’t anticipate the problem and that, to me, means they hadn’t done their research. The second is that they weren’t sufficiently capitalized to invest in the software that would allow for the addition of DRM.

Now, while I can go on with what I saw and have issues with in the article but I won’t. The reason why is that the post triggered something that finally resulted in a finger snap or aha moment. Yes, there are still a lot of people in the publishing industry who blame Amazon for the decline in the number of bookstores in the country. There always will be, no matter what we say. However, in the post referenced above, one of the things the author said was how Amazon allows for lower prices, unlimited stock and one-click shopping so you never have to leave your home. Two of those things lead to the aha moment and the third followed shortly.

Why have we seen a decline in bookstores? There are a number of reasons and we’ve discussed them here before. Basically, there are two or three main reasons. The first was the influx of the big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Until these stores came in, the only regional or national bookstores were almost always located inside a mall. They were small stores and usually had the feel of the locally owned bookstore in the area. Stock was limited and you had to want to fight the crowd at the mall to go to that particular store. With the influx of the big box national chain bookstores, you no longer had to fight the mall and you had much more stock and — gasp — coffee and pastries – to choose from.

With these big box stores came lower prices because they could buy in bulk, something the locally owned stores couldn’t do. Then there were the membership cards, free at first and later for fee, that offered an even larger discount than the already offered discounts on the New York Times best sellers. Those discounts, especially on the best sellers that were getting push from the publishers, are what brought customers into the store and, once there, usually led to impulse buying.

The problem started arising as these big box stores pushed the independent bookstores out of the market. Most of the mom and pop stores simply couldn’t compete. They couldn’t buy the wide range of stock that the larger stores could. Nor could they sell their books at the discount the larger big box bookstores could. Many tried innovative ways but they couldn’t. Then there was the fact that the big box stores were hiring away their staff with promises of bigger salaries, benefits, etc.

Suddenly, cities discovered that the only bookstores they had within driving range were the big box stores. The mom and pop stores we all loved and took for granted were gone. No one knew what happened. But we still had those pretty, well stocked big stores. So all was wonderful.

Until we started realizing that the stores carried the same stock. The exact same stock. Oh, one store might have a copy of a book that the other had but only because the stock hadn’t sold out there. Why was this? After a few years, corporate decided to go from store ordering to regional ordering. After that, it went to national ordering. Our wonderfully diverse bookstores were now the Walmart-version. But we kept on going because they were the only game in town.

Besides, they rewarded us. They built more stores, bigger stores, and they started giving us music and videos and stuff for our kids. Cool! It was a superstore!

And the prices kept going up.

Not just for us but for them as well.

Suddenly, we realized that all was not well in bookstore-land. Those wonderful employees we used to enjoy seeing whenever we went in were no longer there. Gone were they smiling faces and knowledge of the store’s stock. Worse, gone was their love for books. Replacing them were part-time employees, some good but more and more simply people needing a job who didn’t read or didn’t read much. If you asked for a book by an author who wrote like Chekhov or Dostoyevski, you were met with blank stares or — worse — a diatribe about how they hated reading those books in school. If you asked about who published a certain book, if the publisher wasn’t right there, front and center on the cover, the employee had no idea.

And then we realized what the problem was — the locally owned bookstore had created a culture and atmosphere we enjoyed and wanted to be a part of. The generic big box stores didn’t have that. Oh, they’d sucked us in with bright lights and a lot of books, but we hung around long enough to look behind the curtain. When we did, we didn’t find the Wizard. We didn’t even find a little old man who meant well and who was terrified of being found out. No, we found a bunch of men in suits, sitting in their ivory towers in Manhattan who spent their time counting beans. Men who saw only the short-term results of their efforts and never considered the long term.

What they did is play the biggest April’s Fools Day joke ever — they made us believe they could be just as good, if not better, than the locally owned bookstores we’d come to love and they weren’t. Under the corporate culture that they operated under, it was impossible for them to. They killed the bookstores we wanted to go to, the bookstores we had a connection to. Then, once that was accomplished, corporate greed began slowly killing off the killers. Yes, Amazon sped the process but only because we were already looking for alternatives. If these stores want to survive now, they need to go ahead and jump out, yell “April Fools” and then start building a relationship with their clients.

Oh, I can already hear them saying that it won’t work. Amazon sells for so much less than they can. After all, look at what happened to the small bookstores. The problem with this argument is that these corporations have the financial resources that the locally owned bookstores didn’t. It won’t be easy and they very well might have to close even more stores than they have already. But it can be done — but only if they change the corporate culture. You have to give us a reason to come back to the stores and price isn’t the only way to do it. Give us employees who know and love books. Give us a bookstore. Sure, offer music and videos if you want — you can, gasp, sell digital downloads. Go to smaller storefronts to cut costs. Become what the indie bookstores once were — local bookstores that cater to the wants and needs of the local community. Don’t be the Walmart of bookstores. Remember, people will pay more for a product if they think they are getting their money’s worth — and that includes customer service.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Shrug.

58 comments

  1. So true. I was in a bookstore recently where the employees had to look up the books on a computer. Also, many of the books were in the wrong section. ummm… It was strange to find a sci-fi book in mystery.

    1. I still remember the time I went into a Borders and was told there was no such publisher as Baen because the assistant manager of the store couldn’t figure out how to look them up on the computer.

        1. That incident spurred me to make my first direct contact with Toni. After talking with Sarah about what happened and who told me Toni needed to know, I emailed her. I simply couldn’t believe anyone couldn’t believe Baen existed, especially after I showed them one of either Weber’s or Ringo’s books that was on the shelf.

        2. Funny you should say that…

          When I worked for Borders corporate– I tried to get a form created to simplify shortages communications so I didn’t have to call the store (against company policy) if I couldn’t read the scribbles on the smudged packing slip. I was grimly told by men in suits that they couldn’t expect employees in bookstores to be able to read.

            1. Yeah, I did not mean funny as in ‘ha-ha”, but funny as in ‘nuts’. But that was Waldenbooks, who’d merged with Borders. Oddly, though it was Borders who bought out Waldenbooks, it was the Waldenbooks culture that took over Borders. Also, there was a time when Amazon was struggling, and had partnered with Borders for on-line ordering. That failed, and for a while we thought Amazon was going out of business. True story.

              1. I do remember Waldenbooks although I didn’t know about the Broders fiasco with Amazon. I am pretty happy with Amazon right now– not just digital books, but I can order stuff that will help me that I can’t find in my small area.

                1. Oh, I’m actually quite happy with Amazon. Frankly, this whole thing came up because I remember how upset I was that the partnership failed. I really thought that Amazon had something going for it, and I hated to see it go. I kept saying that the split was actually a mistake. Other people inside the company thought I was nuts. 🙂

                  1. I like Amazon as well for ordering deadtree books. Oh, while I don’t buy the “evil” Amazon thing, there is one way that Amazon hurt the big bookstores but the fault was mostly with the big bookstores. I loved going into a B&N or Borders to browse books but I’d often *order* via Amazon. The problem was that if I knew about a book and the big bookstores failed to have it, why should I order via the big bookstores when Amazon would deliver the books to my home but the big bookstores wouldn’t deliver the books to my home? Since we’ve been hearing that the big bookstores weren’t always carrying books that the local readers wanted, why not order via Amazon? [Evil Grin]

                    1. And Amazon would deliver to your door for significantly less money than you could buy it off the shelf for.

  2. Yep, before the “evil Amazon” thing started, I heard the big-box bookstores were killing the small bookstores. [Frown]

      1. Oh, mildly “funny” story. I once visited a “small bookstore”. Since it was down-town, it was extremely difficult to get parking. The selection of books was extremely small especially in the SF/Fantasy category (which was what I was looking for). I never sent back. Later I heard that it was closing its doors and the newspaper printed the owner’s rant about big-box bookstores. My feeling at the time was “so what, your store wasn’t that good”.

        On the other hand, I have been in independent bookstores that deserved staying open.

        1. My mom has a related rant about how she’s glad to shop local… as long as they remember that they don’t have a right to her business, and that she won’t pay three times the price for worse selection and worse service. (Small town. Lots of folks open up because of the Holy Grail of ‘buy local’– then start making themselves living advertisements for why box stores are so popular.)

          1. Yep, they seem to forget that ‘buy local’ is because there are reasons that local ‘should’ be better, remove those reasons and you remove the incentive to buy local.

  3. I’d go. I miss hanging around a good book store. Luckily Austin still has Book People and a few smaller specialized independents. I’d like something a little closer to where I live and work, but that’s just wanting the moon and stars as well as the sun! I do buy most of my books from Amazon, but I don’t tend to browse Amazon. My Amazon purchases are usually specific. I want the new Sarah Hoyt. In and out. I can happily spend hours at Book People and find (and buy) cool books I didn’t know existed.

  4. Amen Amanda. There is nothing like going to a bookstore and talking to someone who actually wants to be there and knows the product.

    I remember walking into a bookstore once. I had been urged by a co-worker to read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. All I could remember when I got to the bookstore was the words “Honor Harrington.” I asked the girl at the cash register about it. She personally grabbed my arm, led me back to the SF section and placed a copy of OBS in my hand. I was floored. She then explained that her brother and her father read it, and she was more of a romance fan, but she liked Ann Rice and so did I and… I was dating my ex-wife at the time. Dammit.

    Anyway…

    Very rarely will you get that kind of rock star treatment at a big box store. Even when the employees are willing to help (and most of them are) they just don’t know their stuff. It can be frustrating. Fast forward a couple of years after the above story happened.

    By this time I had read my way through everything the MWW had written up to that point (except his Bolo book. I still don’t know what order those books go in and I don’t read things out of order) and continued on to some Ringo fella. His stuff was awesome and I really liked his books that he co-authored with a guy named Kratman and I wanted to read his stuff. I had heard about these “Carerra-verse” novels and wanted to start them.

    So I went to my local Barnes and Noble, membership card in hand, and asked where the series started. The first person I asked just shrugged and walked away. The second person told me to wait and walked over to a computer. He did a search, compared the publishing dates and told me to try A State of Disobedience. I bought it. I loved it. I’ve re-read it several times. It’s not Carerra related though, and it wasn’t what I wanted. FWIW, I don’t really blame the guy. He did his best and found me the first book ever published by the good Colonel. It just wasn’t the exact thing that I wanted. That’s a huge difference. And you’re right. I’d pay the extra couple bucks (actually less than that, as it was a PB and a membership only saves 10%) to get that higher level of service.

    1. Jim, that sounds like my experiences with our local B&N. There are a few employees there who will do whatever they can to help you. Some are long time employees who are there because they love reading. But they are the exceptions and most certainly not the rule.

    1. Sporting goods I notice especially. The Gun racks vary and even in places where the laws are about the same, some will look like a regular gun shop, others will have only a few things. Also they adjust for what is hunted in the areas. In areas with a tone of Little League and the older teens don’t have highschool ball, but Legionnaire Leagues the stores tend to have a better selection of stuff than others in the season.

    2. Really? Then they’re doing their books differently than everything else in the stores, which I’m going to have a hard time believing.

      Biggest problem with most of the big-box stores is that they’re fronts for a back-end that’s located up at the national level, somewhere Back East, and the local managers quite literally have no control over stockage. Regional managers have some, but the local managers are under the thumb of someone else. Whether it’s Walmart, or Home Depot, somebody other than a local is controlling what gets stocked, and at what level. We see it every year around here at Home Depot, where the idiots up at corporate screw things up because they don’t understand local market conditions. We don’t do siding around here from around November through March, so all the blades for the Hardie board siding fall off the sales rankings by about January, and then they get remaindered in February, and are off the shelves just in time for the start of siding season again… Followed by everyone and their cousin complaining that they can’t get the blades to do the work, and mass fear and panic on the part of Home Depot’s local guys, who’ve probably undergone a turnover as the regional managers fired the last set of local managers for poor sales performance in the winter months…

      The big-box stores were founded and designed with an idea predicated on a concept of mass sales on a national level. The problem is, they can’t localize, or they won’t. Which is leading to some ugly side-effects–If I decide to go in and buy a tool like a new table saw, if the local store doesn’t have it, it takes three to four weeks for them to get it in. So, I go online, find the saw on Amazon, order it, and two days later the poor bastard from UPS or FEDEX is struggling to get the gargantuan box up onto my front porch…

      The only thing I buy now from Home Depot or Lowes is stuff I need in a hurry, and which they actually stock, or the stuff they bring in to put on sale as a loss leader. The entire segment of the market represented by me buying a new tool they don’t stock, they never see–Because they’re too big and too inflexible to take advantage of it. If they can’t order in things that are in their systems already, and do it quickly enough to compete with Amazon, they’re done and it’s just a matter of time before they’re gone. When Amazon starts to deliver lumber? They’re all done. All of them.

      The big-box stores are on the downward side of the same curve that killed the Sears and the Circuit City stores in the malls. They’re too big, too rigid, and they’re run by people that see the product they’re selling as interchangeable commodities. Which they don’t even care to keep in stock, most of the time. I go to Walmart, and I want to buy a particular product, like liquid anti-fungal spray. Half of the time, they don’t even have the stuff in stock, and when you ask why, the people at the local store can’t even give you a good answer–You get a manager, and they’ll tell you that the sales are the reason: “We only seem to sell this stuff in spasms… Every three-five months, it sells great, then there’s a trough when it doesn’t, it falls off the planogram, and we don’t stock it again until people ask for it…”.

      What they don’t understand is that the reason the sales run in spasms is that the unpredictability of the stuff being on the shelves is what’s driving the train–When I go in on one of my episodic trips and see the stuffs in stock, I buy six months worth because I know it likely won’t be there the next time I’m in. Which means that if everyone else does the same, then there’s going to be a period of about three months when nobody is buying it, it’ll fall off the planogram due to low sales, and the whole syndrome starts over again the next time I need to buy some.

      Centralized control of anything doesn’t work. Whether it’s communism, or SKU management for big-box retailers, local control will trump them every time. They put the little local guys out of business with their bulk-sales approach, but they can’t use those techniques to compete with the next level up in the hierarchy of change, which is Amazon’s online marketing.

      I give these guys another generation, and they’ll be gone, subsumed by some other model. Which will likely be Amazon. Personally, I think the way it’s going to go is that Amazon is going to wind up fronting for all the regional wholesalers in a lot of fields, and the wave of the future is going to be local show-room centers affiliated with Amazon. Want to do a remodel? Go down to the showroom, meet with the experienced tradesmen who are working as sales reps, get shown the product, go to Amazon’s kiosk in the showroom, and drop an order for your stack of products, most of which will come out of the same distribution network that used to service the local lumberyards and supply houses that sold to the public.

      It’s like I keep telling people I work around: You need to be sure you’re understanding what it is you’re selling, because it likely ain’t the widgets out on the shelves. You’re really selling your product knowledge and expertise, and that’s what’s screwing people up. Kitchen remodelers aren’t actually selling the cabinets in the showrooms, they’re selling the kitchen design services. They can’t compete on price with the volume guys, so they need to rapidly figure out how to monetize what it is they’re actually selling, which is the personal touch and experience they have. The average person doesn’t want to spend the time required to make themselves an expert at what’s available out there in the kitchen world, they just want a new kitchen put in. But, when they go to do the cost-comparisons between your showroom product, and the volume sales discounts the big-box boys are able to get, you’re going to lose sales. So, figure out that you’re not actually selling the cabinets, you’re selling your knowledge and skills.

      Crap like this is why the economy is going through a massive change, right now. I give it a generation or two, and the retail model we grew up with is going to be gone, gone, gone. It’ll be you and I going down to the local “bookist” or “reader”, having a cup of coffee, enjoying a discussion about what’s new on the book market, and then ordering through them for something they’ll get a cut on, and which will likely be delivered to local production plants for instant delivery or next-day-from-the-warehouse, if we even want a physical copy. Like as not, we’ll walk in, have a chat with the nice, knowledgeable person, do our social bit, and just have it downloaded onto our devices after having bought the rights to it. Those bookstores we used to love? They were never really selling the books, they were selling the experience and the knowledge of their employees. The reason they’re out of business is that they never figured that out, sadly enough. There’s room for people to make a living being the front-end, human-contact social “fronts” for the distribution networks like Amazon.

      1. Really? Then they’re doing their books differently than everything else in the stores, which I’m going to have a hard time believing.

        Walk into local WalMart: Local authors are featured, there’s a ton of “SEATTLE” stuff, during the Fair there’s “Do The Puyallup” stuff, the plants are selected for our area, there’s way too much Seahawks stuff….

        More localized, the ones near Seattle proper– which is a “sanctuary city”– have a lot of Mexican stuff, while the one nearer me and my wide-range-of-Asian-groups have more supplies for that type of cooking. The snow gear here is pretty pathetic in selection, but the one near my folks (which has a huge influx of Canadians in addition to the local influences) has a really big one. Ours have “Washington Apples” proudly displayed, the ones by my sister doesn’t. For Daffodil Princess time, they have a ton of daffodil plants.

        I don’t know about Lowes and such, I have a preferred local chain, but that has nothing to do with WalMart objectively adapting to local buying patterns.

        The problem with their books is that they’re aimed at folks who aren’t “readers”– YA, inspirational stuff, and some rather nice look-up books that I had to resist buying just for a fairly good look up. (My test: I check what they say about Opus Dei. This one had the objective facts and then the allegations, and other than a bit of excessive skepticism on the Catholic Church was rather good.)

        1. Fox, you’re talking “localization”, which I’ll admit they do well. They treat the stuff you’re talking about as package units, and some of it they manage to do pretty well with. Those are “push packages” of merchandise, put in the stores in limited quantities. They’re not the items I’m talking about, which are commodities whose sales are more localized.

          It’s the problem they had this year at Home Depot–Nobody in the West was selling snow blowers, and snow removal equipment, yet the shelves were full of them out here. On the other hand? I’m going down to buy snow shovels to send a friend in Pennsylvania, because everyone near him is sold the hell out… The devil is in the unpredictable demands, not the one-offs they send out.

          What I’m talking about are things that should be commodity items, like that example of the anti-fungal. The store’s pharmacy manager over here on the other side of the mountains knows me well enough to know why I’m looking for him, and he promises that he’ll do what he can to get the anti-fungal back in. What he can’t do is keep it on the damn shelves, because it keeps “falling off” the planogram. The computers are convinced that it’s a low-demand, non-selling item, when the real issue is that the supply isn’t kept at a predictable level. Everyone who buys the stuff locally goes after it in bulk when they see it, and then don’t buy it again for six months or more. I can’t count on finding it whenever I go into Walmart–These days, it’s like “Well, we’re running low on X, let’s go down there and see if they’ve got it…”.

          The real test of stuff like this isn’t if they’ve got “push packages” of localized product; it’s if they can keep things in stock which have unpredicted localized demands. The poor bastard over here that has to run the pharmacy goes nuts, because he has to constantly keep entering the data into the computer, which is apparently convinced that there is no local market for a couple of those products. If the manager had local control, he’d be able to keep those items stocked. But, he doesn’t. There’s also the problem of stuff he can’t sell, but are apparently best-sellers in other regions. He can’t keep them out of the store, the products take up shelf space, and they wind up in the sales bins when they “time out”.

          Walmart does some stuff relatively well. Some other things? Don’t get me started…

          And, again: Centralization is the big problem.

          1. The problems of supply and demand hold true for small businesses, too.

            That doesn’t change the fact that WalMart DOES adapt to local demands, and the problem is that their supply-and-demand isn’t matched up to us in specific.

      2. The local show room as a front for a set of warehouses and UPS trucks makes a lot of sense. If you go to Japan it’s already that way for many things. For example, my wife recently bought a bike that way. Went to the local bike shop, saw some demo models, chose the one she liked and they ordered it for delivery the next day. OTOH here in the US we went to a trek superstore and tried various bikes. It turned out that one didn’t have the precise model we wanted but the one 30 miles away did, so we reserved it and drove over. If it had been more than 30 miles I’d have been checking the online prices because I wasn’t seeing much benefit from the bricks and mortar experience.

        I think that applies to pretty much any durable item from cars to cookware and may also apply to other stuff too. I could certainly imagine ordering the various preserved sorts of food that way.

        1. What was that store in the Mid-West, back in the 1970s and 1980s? Service Merchandise? You went in, the stuff was on display, you picked it out, and then went to the counter that was the front for the warehouse in back to pick it up?

          I really think that we’re moving towards a retail model that has more in common with that than with what we’re used to. You’ll go down to the local showroom, look at the products, and then they’ll have them next-day delivered from the regional warehouse. In a big-picture sense, what’s going to happen is a dislocation of the mid-level wholesale distributors that don’t get latched on with the new system. When Amazon starts fronting for stuff like lumber, you’ll know it’s over with. I’m no longer shopping at Home Depot for things like shower hoses and the like; Amazon has a larger selection at higher quality, and I don’t need to drive twenty miles to see the one hose they have in stock locally.

          1. heh, my response reading alot of these is People go to home depot for lumber? Then I remember they aren’t in construction and aren’t buying plywood by the skid.

            1. And their very limited supply of boards are some of the poorest quality I have ever seen. And the quality of lumber everywhere has dropped like a rock the last fifteen years.

              1. That is so true! It used to be if you found a warped or unusable piece of wood, that they’d find a sub for you. Now it’s “what you see is what you get.” I’ve stopped doing my own projects because I can’t FIND wood cut to true. All this AND Emerald Ash Borers?

      3. When I worked in a hardware store, most of what I did was solving people’s problems. I was there for my knowledge, not because I could stock shelves. Home Depot and Lowes have forgotten that.

        1. Sometimes helpful isn’t helpful either though. I went to Home Depot in the Bay Area to get a plumbing snake… it was too high to reach and the guy I flagged down started to “help” me instead of just getting me down the plumbing snake… I had to describe the problem, blah, blah, please give me the snake… he decided that a snake wouldn’t solve my problem. I finally got him to give me the snake. I was furious and hanging on by a thread to my sanity, 8 months pregnant, with three children, 5 and under, in the shopping cart. I told my husband when I got home that I had been tempted to tell the guy that my husband told me to get a snake, and if I didn’t come home with a g*d-d*mned snake he’d probably beat me up, just to get the guy to stop helping me and give me the ever-loving plumbing snake. I was apparently still distraught because my husband said that I had his permission to slander him anyway required if it ever seemed necessary again.

          (Oh, and the snake fixed the problem.)

    3. You are right. Their main stock is based on regional demand.I used Walmart as an example because, several years ago when the city council here was considering outsourcing our library, the selling point of the company bidding for the contract used the “we will save you money because, like Walmart, we can order in bulk for all our libraries” argument. What they were saying is that they stocked their libraries with basically the same books, regardless of what the local community wanted.

        1. *moves keyboard up a little higher from yearling*
          -that I knew what you were talking about, while still recognizing that part of WalMart’s success is that they do exactly the opposite of what the big book stores are doing.

  5. I remeber when Borders put in a big store in Metairie, LA, and I liked the way it was run. Most of the workers were book folks, and although they were flaming red commies for the most part (except the flaming gay guy who was a Class 3 FFL holder who owned a ton of guns) they were helpful ,and the store was well stocked. Found lots of great music too. Then they expanded a few things and had less in the store, so they encouraged folks to use borders.com and I joined in. Then one day, I got redirected to Amazon, as Borders and they joined forces, so I was forced to get an Amazon account to do my online ordering from Borders. Then as the store got more and more as Amanda describes (though until I moved to Texas, the large part of its staff was still the bookie types) and they separated from Amazon, I was still buying the occasional book online, but why go back to Borders? Amazon was better priced, had better selection, and I didn’t need to yet again sign up and fill out a ton of forms to do what I was already doing.
    When I moved here to Texas, the first Borders I found was over in Ft Worth, off Hulen and rather small compared to the huge palace in Metry, and woe betide those with a query as nobody there seemed to have and answer.
    Then they put one in Burleson, and though in better shape, and the occasional knowledgeable employee, was more of the same downhill slide.
    When they went out of Biz I recall seeing a sign someone posted online (I wanna say Vodkapundit, but likely it was Insty)that was in a Chicago store saying “No Public Restroom … Try Amazon”
    Borders was the sole reason I had even thought of joining Amazon.

    1. JP, the Borders off of Hulen — and across from Arlington Heights High School — is the one I often reference when it comes to how to drive customers away because of lack of customer service. Small world!

      Borders really did shoot themselves in the foot when they used Amazon for its e-bookstore instead of developing its own. But it was just one of many missteps made by those who bought the chain from its founders.

      1. The fate of Borders represents what happens when the MBA types take over anything. All too many MBA programs teach that everything is the same, and that everything can be reduced to the lowest common denominator.

        Where Borders really screwed up, and I say this as someone who used to love going to those stores, is that they fundamentally confused what they were selling. It wasn’t the books. It was the experience, and the expertise of their employees. The books were a fairly small part of why I went in there–Mostly, I wanted to go hang out with other “book people”, see what was new, have a cup of coffee, read the paper, and enjoy an afternoon out. For which I was willing to pay by buying books and magazines at full retail.

        When they stopped letting the local managers control what was stocked, fired all the experienced and expensive knowledgeable employees, and the inventory started being run down, I quit going. Oh, and the ideological bullshit also turned me away–When the Tacoma Borders opened up, there was never a situation where they’d actually hide books they didn’t like from customers, which happened frequently during the later years of the store. You’d ask for something new by even a slightly-less-than-politically-correct author, they’d tell you they didn’t have and weren’t getting it in, and then you’d go find it in the stacks at the back of the store, while the publicity materials and displays sent out by the publisher would be stacked by the dumpster…

        I used to make a weekly pilgrimage up there, when I was stationed at Fort Lewis. Then, monthly, and finally it was “Wow… Haven’t been by there in awhile… Wonder what’s new…?”. Towards the end, I’d walk in, spend an hour or two looking around, and walk out without making a purchase because they had nothing I wanted. Which, for me, is kinda sorta unheard of, in a bookstore…

        Borders was a self-inflicted wound, and it was sad to watch. Same thing has gone on with most of the major bookstores. I shop Amazon now, mostly because they don’t give a blue f**k about ideology, and just want to sell me something.

        Amazon does have that “Let’s pipe hot and cold running crack to the addict’s house…” thing going for it, however. I probably wouldn’t do as much business with them if I didn’t have them basically living in my computer, proffering their wares at every opportunity. Bastards.

        1. “All too many MBA programs teach that everything is the same, and that everything can be reduced to the lowest common denominator.”

          As Joel Spolsky put it, “The cult of the MBA likes to believe that you can run organizations that do things that you don’t understand.”

    2. The initial folks who started Borders– the Borders Brothers– cared about book culture. They were doing to books what the great Seattle coffee shops were doing with coffee, and they GOT it. They had tests (mostly illegal now) that tested book knowledge. They even had these requirements at Corporate level. I was the last person they hired that had to take that test. Hint: they later merged with WaldenBooks, which did NOT have the cultural drives that Borders did– they were less cognizant of culture than IBM would have been. They got rid of the tests, and their people took over the old Borders employees by getting rid of them as flakes and “not business people”. FWIW I think that’s really what killed borders. In it’s heyday, they had regional buyers who communicated directly with the store managers. They had a whole system for dealing with small publishers directly who did not use EDI (Electronic Transactions, for ordering, basically). But that wasn’t “efficient”, so the Walden droids got rid of it.

  6. In San Diego there is a good mystery/SF book store called Mysterious Galaxy. The stock is good and the staff knowledgeable, but I still rarely go there because I rarely buy print books and when I do it’s after I read the ebook and decided I like the story so much it’s worth having in paper. So I have no need of their expertise and Amazon ships me stuff in 2 days just fine.

    Sad to say, while they are occasionaly odd, Amazon’s autogenerated recommendations are about as accurate as anything I had from a book store and combine that with basic word of mouth and I get plenty of new authors to try without leaving the comfort of my living room.

  7. “This particular person is partner in an online bookstore that was begun some years ago for two purposes — to create a niche market for a very small and very specific type of book and to then create “serious competition” for Amazon. ”

    Create a very small and specific niche market AND create serious competition for Amazon? Isn’t that a perfect definition of oxymoron?

  8. Ha. You know, this makes me wonder about a new role for libraries. After all, they are already set up to be places to go to find out what you are interested in, talk to someone who is knowledgeable about books, and so on. Now add in tablets and wifi to let you order from Amazon or other online services right there, plus a “consulting fee” cut that goes to the library, and… voila! Instant “local bookshop” kind of. Don’t need to keep large inventory, because the online services let anyone buy, but do keep a good collection to let people browse and find out what they like. Actually, I could see Amazon and other online services setting up such “reference book centers” for their own purposes, because it means people have a “local expert” to help them find things. If I was doing it, I’d probably set up discussion circles — mysteries on Mondays, romance on Tuesdays, science fiction and fantasy on Wednesdays, etc. — where people are encouraged to come in and talk about their finds. Hum… the rebirth of the library, as a local book nook?

  9. What I miss most of all are the used book stores. They were usually ratty storefronts in ratty strip malls and the shelves were plywood and pallets and they had a stock of 100,000 paperback books, mostly organized in loose groups one of which was scifi. They sold them for about 1/5 of the cover price or 2 for a dollar. I could hit six or seven stores on my bike in a day. They are all gone now in just about every town. Some of the lucky towns still have one. San Diego has 3 or 4. San Francisco/Oakland have 3 or 5.

    The new book stores, the small ones you all write about, were crap. The Daltons and the Waldens sucked. If you were lucky they had nothing you wanted. If you were unlucky, they had Perry Rhodan #37 and #76. The service sucked, the aisles were way to narrow and the prices ridiculous. The SuperCrown was tops until the blessed event and Borders arrived.

    God, I miss Borders. You could find one in every decent town and they had a huge selection, friendly staff, good music, coffee and zero attitude. Naturally, they were doomed to die.

    B&N isn’t too bad but there’s just the one serving the entire metro region but I can find what I want there. I look since there isn’t much point in bothering the staff and the entire reason for coming to a bookstore is to browse. Ours is OK but not great, not warm and not friendly the way Borders was. The one on the harborfront in Baltimore is simply awesome. I like the one in Arlington, VA.

    There are still plenty of the old second hand hardback fancier shops that cater to bizarre tastes like used architecture text books, coffee books, pre-revisionist history and ceramic. The sci-fi section is miniscule but there is some turnover. It’s odd though to live in a huge metro area with one B&N, one secondhand and one used book store that caters to the kids from the university (which is awesome in its collection and display of used paperback scifi.)

    Amazon is brilliant. I shall miss it when it goes under.

    1. Other than Hastings and Borders I have never seen a ‘new’ bookstore that didn’t stock more used books than new. I guess when I here people lamenting about the loss of the small indie bookstores those were what I pictured, primarily used book inventory, but with a selection of new books that they ordered because they knew they would sell to their customers.

  10. I have the unfair advantage of living in an anomalous market.
    Norfolk is the largest military installation in the *world*. And it turns out that young Sailors have fairly deep pockets and *remarkably* strong prejudices. The ones who love books want sales clerks who SHARE that love of books, and can point them to the specific books they crave with a minimum of shelf-surfing. As a result, Norfolk/VaBeach is one of the few markets in which the small indie bookstore (and gaming/collectible store, and …) has not only survived, but continued to thrive.

    But I still miss the helpful-and-slightly-geeky girl in WaldenBooks who would smile at me when I said things like, “I liked _Dream_Park_ a lot. Do you have anything else like that?” and lead me unerringly toward the SF&F section while replying, “”What was it you liked most about the book? I’m sure we have something …”

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