Baby or Bookstore? How Borders Kept Me Out of The Bookselling Business

If I’ve sounded a little strident in my last few posts about the troubles Borders and their employees are in it’s because I am strident. I grew up in the magazine, book and newspaper distribution. I spent Spring Breaks clearing out the warehouse my father managed. A few Winter Breaks in high school were spent opening up bookstores that the magazine agency owned as a side business. For the past decade, I’ve watched an industry that I care deeply about, blunder about and foolishly waste opportunities to reinvent itself and create new markets.

The home I grew up in was filled with paperback, hardback and trade books. Our family joked that we didn’t know that paperback books and magazines had covers. Sundays were spent around the kitchen table reading The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Barron’s. I tapped out news stories for my school paper on a battered Smith Corona portable and pretended that I was Mike Royko or Seymour Hersch. At night, I wrote fantasy stories and wished that I could go to England and meet J.R.R. Tolkien.

It was by complete accident and chance that I wound up in the magazine distribution business. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do after college, and this seemed like a reasonable option. My original plan was to get out quickly and move on to other parts of the publishing world. But after calling on other magazine wholesalers in my first territory and visiting their warehouses and their bookstores, I quickly decided that my long term career goal was to have my own bookstore.

My first six years of work took me from a small national distributor to a medium sized publishing company and then to one of the first publisher run consulting firms. During this time, we saw a huge expansion in mall based bookstores like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton. Borders and Barnes and Noble Superstores were on the rapidly approaching horizon. Traditional bookstores and newsstands began to close as it became harder for independent retailers to stay open.

It was during my second year as a consultant that I met the woman I was to marry. We were engaged to be married on the anniversary of my third year with the company. But on my three year anniversary, my boss called me and instead of giving me my annual review, he informed me that the company was shutting down (his parent company one of the first “over leveraged” publishing companies to sink) and I was free to go out on my own and secure the clients for myself.

Fast forward a few years and I had found some success in my consulting business and I was enjoying being an entrepreneur. But I still really wanted to open my own bookstore. I traveled almost every week and there were still many independent wholesalers who had their own bookstores. I loved visiting them.

The time came for my wife and I to talk about having children. But because I was so jazzed up about getting my own bookstore, we decided to first consider what it would take to make a bookstore happen. Do you remember the Little Professor Bookstores? They are still around. Little Professor franchised bookstores and they were still growing at that time. We visited locations, ran numbers and were at the point where one of the franchise managers was about to come out to our town to help us search for locations.

But one night, on our way home from visiting another bookstore in a neighboring town, we passed by a construction site near our house. The sign at the construction site said it was the future home of a 25,000 square foot Borders Bookstore. The picture on the sign showed a two story building. Our jaws dropped into our laps. The location of this new store from a chain that we had only read about was right on the spot where we were hoping to build our much smaller bookstore.

Sitting in the driveway that night I remember looking over and saying, “Baby or Bookstore?” To my wife’s credit, she allowed me to reach my own conclusion. And fortunately for us, it was the same conclusion

“Baby,” I said. “Well always have our baby.”

We bought our first baby books in that Borders stores. I built up my music collection in that store. At least a quarter of the books in our house come from that store. And while I knew about Amazon, have an Amazon account, and occasionally bought things from Amazon, I liked going to the store, wandering the aisles, finding things I hadn’t thought about.

And over the past few years, I’ve been disappointed to see long term employees drift away, the carpet fade and tear and not get replaced, the magazine racks thin out, the book racks replaced with tzchotkes  and mounds of unwanted bulk sale books. While I admired the tremendous effort my contacts in Ann Arbor made to keep their department operating, I couldn’t help wondering if it would be enough if the rest of the company was in so much trouble. I’m not a fan of equating corporations to people, but the long, slow decline of  this company is something like watching a friend being consumed by cancer.

There are no Little Professor Book Centers in this market. They all shut down a long time ago. In fact, where once there may have been a hundred or more around the country, I think there are now fewer than twenty. By the end of April, there will be two hundred fewer Borders stores. The one that encouraged us not to go into the book selling business will be gone.

So do we howl at the moon, spit into the wind and open our bookstore now? That seems like a stretch. But the publishing industry remains very interesting, rewarding, and full of some of the most creative people I’ve ever met. Reinvention seems like the operative word these days. Time to stay busy.

 

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