Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bye Bye Borders: So Long, and Thanks for all the Books

To no one in the book industry’s surprise, Borders Books & Music is bankrupt.  On a blogger’s level, I’m very jealous of a person named Corey.   Instead of wringing his hands over what to post, editing, rejecting, shuffling, he’s posting every day about life in his Borders during the liquidation.  He’s got spelling errors, but his work is more visceral than mine.  It’s called abooksellerwithoutborders.  It’s an optimist struggling with occasional bitterness.  It’s a solid writer chronicling an important, historic moment in the book business.  It’s a condemnation of corporate bullshit, a celebration of the Third Place, and an examination of what happens when that place must close.  Feeling a little jealous, but I’ll get over it.
Borders was my introduction to the book business.  Chrispy had been there for five years when I started, but he was such a veteran it came across as a much longer stretch.  He told me 2000 would be his “last year working  a holiday in retail.”  When I left in 2004, he said the same thing.  He’s still there at our old store, #47 in Pinecrest (still Miami, just a snooty zip code), the one doing big business every day on US-1. 
Jorge (pronounce that George, please) is closing #47 down.  He’s worked for Borders for nearly thirty years.  In South Florida, he’s the the last of the old-school booksellers still working for Borders.  They were everywhere in my day, the ones who loved working for Borders so much it became their career, the ones with 15 to 20 years under their belts.   An email came down from corporate a couple years back.  For the few old-timers who’d watched Borders devolve and still held out hope that it would be a special place again, this soulless email was the final straw.  Digusted with what a job they once loved had become, the old guard departed en masse. 
Closer to where I work, a former Books & Books manager is closing the Borders at Merrick Park.  Working for him is Claus, a guy any employer would thank his lucky stars to have on payroll.  Claus was also in the Chrispy range of employment when I worked at Borders of Pinecrest, which means he’s also old guard now.  Claus is Danish.  Borders is the only place he’s ever worked in America.  
Writing this is depressing the hell out of me.  Here’s more misery for the sadness pile; Borders’ bankruptcy gives publishers who were already hardening their accounting practices more reason to be harsh, puts 11,000 booksellers out of a job, and completely eliminates physical bookstores in many small towns. 
If no one steps into these “smaller markets” with an indie, people will get their books online, and getting books online means one place.  It’s a great time for indies to open, but only under a very specific set of circumstances.  No one is going to invest in the Chrispy and Claus’s of the world opening their own stores, so any new bookstore owner needs deep pockets and an unusually high tolerance for going without profit.
Did you know that’s the goal at independent bookstores?  Every corporate job I’ve had looked for 4% growth each year, but independent bookstores consider a year without red ink a success.   
I’d love it if three stores stepped in to take the place of Dolphin Mall, Merrick Park, and Pinecrest.  I’d love to see Miami become as rich with indie bookstores as Philadelphia, New York City, or San Francisco.  Of course, I’ve been waiting for that to happen for years.  Those of us who could realistically make a go of it are too busy working for Mitchell Kaplan to apply what we know into opening stores of our own, and the booksellers whom Borders’ bankruptcy is putting out of business don’t have the means.  
When you spend twenty or thirty years in retail avoiding management, you don’t have a lot of capital to show for it.   
Here’s to booksellers left behind.  May they find something else they love as passionately as books.  Barring that, may they find something which throws gobs of money at them.  

And may a few lucky, brave souls open bookstores of their own.  

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