The Trouble with Bookstores

Anyone who has ever helped me move in or out of a house knows that I have a lot of books.  What my husband and I do for fun, when other people go to clubs or the movies, is go to the bookstore and read for a few hours.  We used to do this about once or twice a week, before our child was born.  Even after, it has been a staple of her life.  It is a sadness to us that we keep moving further and further from good bookstores, as we've moved in our last three locations.  Our definition of a good bookstore is one that has chairs to read in, a good selection of books, a children's section with a train table or play structure, coffee and snacks, and is open until 10 or 11 p.m., and open on my off-times (Monday, Sunday evening).   If we can get 10-20% off as a matter of course, we're pretty satisfied with the deal, too.

As most will know, Borders is closing many book stores across the country.  There are four closing here in Michigan.  Store closings are part of our landscape right now.  The Borders that is closing in Ann Arbor is in the same strip mall, Arborland, where an empty storefront sits that used to be a Circuit City.  Once Borders is gone, I'm sure the whole strip mall will suffer.  Some may see the closings as holding potential for independent book stores to bloom.  Ann Arbor has a fair number of those, but not as many as it used to when I was in college.  Perhaps they can once again grow.  But in Ann Arbor, Borders was the local independent bookstore once, before it grew into the national chain we know today, so there's a special melancholy for the bookstore closing there.  It's not the flagship store in downtown Ann Arbor (which actually sits across the street from where the original was housed, in the building that used to house Jacobson's, a long-gone from Michigan department store chain.  

Here in Jackson, there is only one book store left in town, and it happens to be a Waldenbooks (owned by Borders) in one of the two malls.  When I moved to Jackson there was a little independent bookstore in a free-standing building on one of the main roads, another little bookstore in a strip mall, and a small independent bookstore in the other mall.  I doubt any of them were driven out by the Waldenbooks, nor was the little independent store that opened later (and then went out of business) downtown.  Of course, as we know, they were all, including Borders, affected by the online competition of Amazon.  One might argue that Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor was negatively affected by Borders.  Shaman Drum, a wonderful independent that for years existed on the same section of road as the downtown Borders, went out of business not too long ago (2009). Shaman Drum specialized in some of the liberal arts and academic presses. When I was in college, the whole religion department ordered text books through Shaman Drum. However, when I went to find some specific theological titles a few years ago, I went first to Shaman Drum, didn't find them, and then went across the street to Borders, and did.  Honestly, if I hadn't found them there, I would've ordered them through Amazon.  With both bookstores 45 minutes away, both convenience and price were on Amazon's side.  However, Shaman Drum says that the problem was in the decrease of textbook sales.  Those textbook sales didn't go to Borders.  They went to Amazon.  As someone teaching at a community college, I honestly do tell my students, many of whom are scraping together the funds for college, to look for deals on textbooks online.  With the price of textbooks as high as it is, they need to save whatever they can on them.  The used textbook market online is much more advantageous to students than the way we used to be only able to get used books if that class had been offered the semester before, and even then, only a few might be available.

So it was with some sadness, some guilt, and some sense that this was really the fault of an industry that hadn't adapted to change that I went to the store in Ann Arbor that is closing during the first day of the store-closing sale.  Honestly, there are some reasons why this store is closing.  I think Ann Arbor never could support three Borders, a Barnes and Noble, plus all their independent book stores.  When the third Borders opened up, the second one was bound to suffer -- it didn't have the downtown college advantage, and the new one had a better selection, more chairs to read in, a better media section, and, crucially for us, a train table and a small slide in the children's section.  The Arborland Borders had a Barnes and Noble right up the street, too, so before the third Borders opened we often went to Barnes and Noble.  We liked the book selection at Borders better, but Barnes and Noble had better chairs, more of them, and, again, that train table!  It helped that Barnes and Noble, at the time, had a better discount program.  When the little independent store in Jackson finally opened, we often went there, but its hours weren't as lengthy, it's selection was not as varied, and there were no discounts on books.  The Borders also had the disadvantage of a really weird parking lot, not that that would've stopped us.

So here we were, at the Borders we had abadoned, on Saturday evening.  The store had its store closing signs everywhere proclaiming its steep discounts -- 20-40% off everything.  "20-40% is a closing sale?  Can't I get that much off at Amazon all the time?"  I wondered.  I heard others wondering the same thing out loud, as well.  Yes, there were some discounts that went steeper -- 70% off seasonal Valentine's Day items -- again something you would find when a store wasn't closing.  All calendars were $1, again, not too shocking in February.  Almost everything we put in our basket was only 20% off, and a couple items were 30%.  We got an extra 10% for being members of their rewards system.  We've gotten that much off on a good coupon before.  It was underwhelming.  But it was an experience to be there, feeling melancholy with hundreds of others.  "I feel like a vulture," I heard one man saying, "I hope I'm not a vulture.  I don't think I'm a vulture."  "This is sad," I heard a woman say to a friend.  "Yeah, it is crazy," her friend responded.  "No, sad," the first woman said.  "Crazy and sad," I said as I passed.  The books were in disarray, and the coffee shop was closed, with a sign saying that it wouldn't be reopened.  Bottles of specialty sodas and some personal-sized milk cartons were sitting in the case.  I wondered if I should just take one.  I hope they gave them to the employees to drink after closing.  In the children's section, I looked for the newly-released book my child had been wanting.  It wasn't on the shelves, which were already picked over.  Not surprised, I sat down on the seats in the area, and looked down at the pile of books that had been abandoned there which was at about the same height as the bench.  Amazed, I reached down and found the book I was looking for near the top with the corner and spine sticking out for me to see.  The line for this not-so-great deal stretched from the front of the store to the back and then back to the front again.  My husband jumped almost immediately into the almost two-hour line, while I shopped for different family members who called in their orders.  My father actually wanted a calendar, so he got the best deal, except that I forgot to give it to him when I saw him.  We experienced this same thing when our local bookstore in Jackson went out of business. We shopped and bought a lot of books, really just to support the owner, but the discount was about the same as we could've gotten at Amazon.  I tried to focus on things that I know Amazon not to have great discounts on, honestly.  And when I looked things up later, I had gotten deals. 

They'll be selling the fixtures next, of course.  My child suggested we get some bookshelves, until I asked where we would put them.  Our walls are already full.  Honestly, the move to electronic books was what needed to happen before my floors collapse. 

I wish I could be a purist who would only shop at small, local, independent book stores.  I tried to do that for a while.  It helps if you actually have one, and have the money to routinely pay an extra 20%.  It's not cheap to be idealistic.  But without driving 45 minutes, I'm down to one Waldenbooks in the mall now, and I've got that new Kindle with 3G which will download books anywhere.  More and more often when I want a book and to spend a few hours hanging out reading while my child plays at a train table I'll be doing it in my basement.


Peevish said…
I'm a Jackson native now living in Japan. I never visit Jackson without spending at least two hours at the wonderful used book store in the old Louis' gas station. I've owned a Kindle for nearly three years but still cannot resist a good deal on a used book.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Yes, I was writing about book stores for new books, but I didn't really specify that. We do have a good used book store. Our church has a credit there for hundreds of books, as do I personally.

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