Off On a Tangent

Random musings from Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin, August 27)

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On Chronicling The End of the Chain Bookstore Era

At heart, I am an optimist. And perhaps this isn’t the week to bask in optimistic waters, what with Borders finally, finally, declaring the Chapter 11 bankruptcy everyone had expected for months (years?) and the only semi-surprising follow-up in Australia and New Zealand from REDGroup, but it’s a lot easier, if not exactly comforting, to compare this week’s events with a snake shedding its skin, a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, or some other metamorphic process.

Change can be bloody, painful, unsettling, even brutal. It can also be wondrous, life-affirming, hopeful and dynamic. The act of change, since it involves risk of some sort, is scary as hell, whether or not it leads to good or bad tidings. And change for change’s sake, because somebody thought it was a great idea without any good reason to believe such, can be catastrophic (in fact, that’s at the heart of what did Borders in, not to mention the revolving door of managers and top brass who thought general retail strategies could apply to books.)

Ultimately, change itself just is. Others interpret or put a particular spin on what change means. But it happens, and all we can do is react, analyze, prognosticate or mitigate. Even anticipating feels a lot like playing catch-up.

That’s why Borders filed Wednesday morning, even though I had been ready, waiting, ready to pounce and write something for months, I was still caught a little off-guard. It’s happening now, early in the morning, after so much buildup, so much ink spilled in various corners, with occasional forays into metatalk*, yet here’s that jolting lurch of surprise instead of some passive sense of resignation. That was my thought process for about ten seconds. Then there was work to be done.

I can’t help but think - and I’m sure I’m stealing someone else’s analogy, so apologies in advance - that we’ll look back and realize massive superstore chain bookstores were the subprime loans and credit default swaps of the publishing industry. Was it really possible that a store with comfy couches, magazines, coffee, toys and games would ever be the right venue for the actual buying of books? That a company beholden to shareholders and the stock market could mesh with the art of recommending the right title to the right customer?

It’s no accident the superstore began in the early 90s, when Borders sold to KMart in 1992 and B&N finally went public in 1994, when we were climbing out of an economic dip and plunging into the go-go years of boom time. We could shrug off Crown Bookstore going under - first in 1998, for real in 2001 - because hey, that was family mismanagement, the culmination of bitter infighting and lax attention on the bottom line. We could ignore Borders’ bonehead move of outsourcing its online arm to Amazon because the digital world didn’t matter like we thought it did and we thought it never would. And later, we could attribute brick-and-mortar decline to so many of the usual suspect factors: the tanking economy, e-books, attention spans leaving books and moving to other kinds of media, and so forth.

But maybe what really happened was as simple as this: chain bookstores were never supposed to last as long as they did, and have reached their natural end point after twenty years. Publishing in general has enough struggle with scale, either being too small and prone to great risk and failure, or too big and beholden to larger entities who want greater and greater annual profits. Whatever possessed us to think bookstores could operate this way? Why is the art of bookselling supposed to be conflagrated with abundance, with excess and with millions of square feet?

Obviously, the chain bookstore story is by no means over. Borders believes it can emerge a stronger company; publishers and other people with a vested interest are more skeptical, when Borders’ financials are a little too similar to Circuit City, which tried to emerge from Chapter 11 and ended up liquidating completely. Books-a-Million plods along, the strong, silent 3rd-largest (and never-national) retailer, piggybacking onto B&N for its e-book strategy and making do with okay-ish same-store sales.

And of course, B&N, transitioning more and more into a digital book-first company now that the proxy fight sideshow with Ron Burkle has reached a rest point. (So long as Burkle still has a significant stake in the company, I can’t say with absolute certainty that he’s out of the picture, though he has certainly been discouraged from making another run for the board.) They do stand the best chance, but it depends on whether they continue as a public company or go private.

The go-go years are long gone for chain bookstores. Let’s not make the same judgment errors with respect to the digital age, because it, too, may have a limited shelf life or reach a natural saturation point. Eventually, everything does.

*it is strange for a journalist to be discussed openly by the very company he or she is chronicling. Not unusual, ripe for humor, but strange nonetheless.

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    The Clinton years. I do pine for them sometimes. That said, this all strikes me as very, very true.
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