Small bookstores in a megastore economy

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Today the chain retailer Borders announced filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A number of its Chicago-area stores familiar to the Northwestern University community will be closed in the coming weeks, including the large stores on Maple Street in Evanston, Clark and Diversey, North and Halsted, and Broadway in Uptown. It’s time to redeem those gift cards.

The financial straits of Borders have been publicized for some time, and are due in part to the rising popularity of eBooks. Bob Minzesheimer writes in USA Today:

Borders, which has had three CEOs in the past three years, was slow to develop a digital strategy. It sells reading devices and has an e-bookstore powered by Kobo, a Toronto-based e-retailer. But from 2001 to 2008, it outsourced its online sales to Amazon. "It was utterly stupid for Borders to borrow their future from a company that didn't want them to even have a future," says Michael Norris, an analyst with Simba Information, a market researcher.

The majority of books today are sold online at e-retailers such as Amazon, or at megastores such as Price Club. Arguably, brick-and-mortar superstores have little to offer over online retailers. As alternatives to retail giants, independent bookstores have the opportunity to offer a welcoming ambience and community-centered experience for shoppers. Minzesheimer interviewed small book shop co-owner Suzanna Hermans about her strategy for growth at her store, Oblong Books, in Rhinebeck, NY. Hermans says her shop now helps customers order eBooks through Google, and keeps 20-40% of the retail price of those sales. Further, she tells Minzesheimer:

Bookstores help create community for people in the places where they live. People may think they can live online, but in reality they live in real towns and cities, and physical bookstores help to enrich those places.

Meg Z. Smith of the American Booksellers Association had these remarks about Borders’ announcement today:

Though Borders is not a member of the American Booksellers Association, we are always saddened when any bookstore closes. The industry -- whether independent bookstores, publishers, or readers -- does not benefit from the diminishment of places to browse, discover, and buy books.

I’m thinking about what a local independent bookseller provides—bringing in authors, hosting readings, recommending books catered to my tastes based on an in-person discussion, perhaps offering a thoughtful selection of used books. I can find time to take up a comfortable chair in a friendly shop for an hour or an evening, and I’ll undoubtedly head home with more than I had when I came.