Bye Bye, Borders: Do We Still Need Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores?

Border's books
Border's books

In the early 1980s, before the crackle and hum of a dial-up modem invaded our living room, my dad and I went to a local bookstore most Saturday evenings. We had two choices: Printers Inc., a free-minded store in Mountain View, Calif., which pioneered the coffee-while-you-read model, and Kepler's Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., where there were acres of floor space.

By the mid 1990s, I was working at Kepler's as my part-time college job. Our collective staff brainpower served as the proto-Internet, finding obscure connections and recalling information about arcane topics. As a customer approached the information booth, we evaluated their stride, authority, how much gray was in their hair, and got ready to start auto-filling suggestions. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood? The Rules? Cold Mountain? One staffer manned the ISBN search terminal, another hovered by the special-order cart, and yet another stood ready to run down an aisle to search out whatever book might be desired.

In the quiet moments, chatting against a musical background of 10,000 Maniacs, we felt as an independent store, that we faced two threats: big box bookstores, like Borders, and Internet retailers, like This week, threat No. 1 disappeared as Borders announced it would liquidate. Equally interesting, threat No. 2 is no longer a threat to independent bookstores, but an ally, providing a platform for thousands of individual booksellers to peddle their wares.
Still, the news this week that Border's Books is closing all its 399 locations has left a lump in my throat. Barnes & Noble (BKS) will remain as the sole big-box brick-and-mortar book vendor, while thousands of independent sellers will keep on keeping on, operating on thin margins and love of the game.

My distress is echoed by the American Booksellers Association, which represents 90% of independent booksellers in the United States. "We are not excited by this," Meg Smith, the marketing and membership director said. "It's bad for the supply chain and booksellers, and it's bad for people." She added that's it is too early to know how the Borders closing will impact small booksellers.

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Like every other aspect of the media, the bookselling industry continues to adjust to changing consumer habits and the stark economics of online delivery. But even while the big chains like Borders are suffering, there has been growth on the independent front. Last year, there were 1,825 independent sellers with membership to ABA -- an increase of 5% to 7% from 2009. Smith attributes that rise to an increasing emphasis on local and community business along with a partnership between the ABA and Google Books.

But do we need bookstores? Not really, if all we're talking about is access to books or information. With the boom in tablet computers, Kindles and the like, the time elapsed between desiring a book and actually turning (metaphorically) its pages has shrunk to a matter of minutes. Even the social aspects of a bookstore -- a venue to share ideas, chat with friends, flirt with members of the opposite sex -- sound increasingly like another "place": Facebook.

So what is the value of a clean, well-lit place? It is people. "It's something that you can't scientifically determine," Smith said. "There is a core human need to be with people in a place that is stimulating and exciting." Back to the proto-Internet: booksellers. "They are remarkable people," Smith added. "People like the exchange with them, they have a passion and it rubs off. ... It's really a very simple formula: [A bookstore is a] welcoming place, with interesting stuff and welcoming people."