We are book people. I love browsing through bookshops, and have ever since I was kid.
My favorite book shop growing up started out as a used book store called “The Village Green” in Rochester, NY. It was around the corner from our house, and I could go there and pick up books virtually at will with my mom’s permission. My first copies of Kurt Vonnegut were purchased there, and later, the man himself signed the same books at the store.
Over time, Village Green expanded. It began to have new books as well as used. It began to have departments. It expanded even more to include small gifts, a fantastic newsstand, stationary, and eventually small grocery and subdries, and a coffee bar. And then the whole business collapsed. The bookstore where I spent most of my reading life, from age 10 through 25, was gone.
The diversification I think led a bit to its undoing- there wasn’t the same focus on what made the store great in the first place. The interesting and unusual titles that made it a destination for book lovers was gradually replaced with New York Times Best Sellers, and the innovative finds, the books that sparked imagination were gradually replaced and disappeared. The funk was replaced by ho hum until it was gone all together. And apparently, it has even had an SEC investigation against it.
I tell this story to say that I think the same cycle is happening with Borders Books & Music, at least locally. Our Borders is becoming less well stocked by the day. The wide selection of books is being replaced by ipod accessories and stationary items. They still have a pretty good newsstand, but the sale items are starting to over-run the inventory, at least by visual perception. Many shelves seem empty, and the new organizational scheme makes the store harder to navigate and I find I am not happening upon books the same way I used to. The cutesy stuff at the register is growing, while the inventory is shrinking. It’s starting to look like a store on its way out of business, and others have remarked they feel the same when they enter the store.
Because the store feels so weird when you walk in, people are starting to go elsewhere. There’s a Barnes and Noble not that far away, and Amazon is in everyone’s home for the specific items they might need. The destination and community center that Borders filled is starting to ebb away, and I have an intense feeling of de ja vu.
So in thinking about this, I looked at Borders financials on Hoover.com. Sure enough, revenue has been dropping for the past two years. Losses are getting bigger. And I am not surprised, because it is reflected not only in the lack of staff in the store, but in the whole atmosphere that used to exist- it now feels like the old generic Waldenbooks, and less like Borders, which had an Academia meets Starbucks feel to it when it first opened.
I wonder if this is a general lifecycle of some bookshops. Then I remember places like the Penn Book Center, on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. Ever since my undergraduate years, this shop has stocked some of the greatest books I’ve ever read. While it acts as a center for some of the more off-beat books professors order for their classes that aren’t stocked at the University’s bookstore, the selection of smaller run books is fantastic. (I even occasionally pick up books recommended for classes I am not taking, because the books and titles intrigue me.) Penn Book Center is not trying to be a chain, and it succeeds as many small bookshops do- by providing its customers with awesome books, a great selection, and it’s not trying to be anything else.
I am sorry to see Borders struggle. Borders and Barnes & Noble together helped do in my first favorite bookstore, and I’d hate to see it suffer the same fate, having learned no lessons from the past.
As nice as it is to have one stop shopping, it’s also okay just to do your one thing and do it the best that you can- be a great bookshop- don’t try to be the whole mall. And if you do try, it may be at your own peril.