March 8th, 2013

Moose With Mug

Borders: Two Years Gone, and Still Missed

I started writing the following in response to a comment left by canyonwalker to an earlier post. However, after completing the first paragraph I decided to elevate it to a post of its own and incorporate a host of material that really didn't belong in a straightforward reply.

I like to cloak myself with the narrative that I try as much as possible to patronize local, small businesses rather than large national retail outlets. It is one that feeds into my crunchy granola liberal self-image and that allows me to feel good about how I interact with the world around me -- that I am somehow making a difference. I manage to engage in the requisite behavior just often enough to provide substance to this idea. I refuse to go to Walmart as a way of protesting their business practices, and I only use Exxon stations at the times when a stubborn refusal to register information from the gas gauge results in my needing to stop at the closest available gas station. When eating out, I manage to avoid franchised food chains the majority of the time.

Yet that difference I am making is rather small, and when I am honest with myself I see that my personal narrative is more fiction than truth. The fact is that outside of those few choice examples I give my business to mom-and-pops far less often than I should. The reasons often boil down to what I call "the Amazon factor" -- laziness and the desire to save money. On a deeper conscious level I frequently avoid, I am disappointed with myself for not doing more to support my personal narrative and engaging in this self-deception. Hell, I even question whether my avoidance of restaurant franchises has more to do with the quality and type of food they serve and less to do with showing support for the local business owner just trying to make a dream come true.

Yet, there is -- rather, once was an exception to the rule: a national chain I loved so much that I gave them as much of my business as possible, even though by doing so I was helping it (and its primary competitor) drive thousands of independent retailers, the ones I profess to cherish, out of business. I felt bad for those little shops, but the fact is that they couldn't provide me the same experience as this particular behemoth -- an experience I genuinely cherished. Sadly, It's been two years since Borders started the bankruptcy liquidation that ended one of the few national retail chains I genuinely loved.

I can see why to people like my cousin canyonwalker, for example, there was little difference between Borders and B&N and that they saw them as just "two big bookstores with coffee shops in them." However, back when the two stores first started populating the landscape and driving mom-and-pops out of business, I quickly sensed an aesthetic difference between the two. B&N was a huge company that just happened to sell books, as evidenced by the tall, black metal shelves on which their books sat, the pretentious line drawings of authors on their walls, and the fact that they prominently displayed their own imprint featuring books in the public domain. Everything about the store indicated an overeager desire to get you to spend as much money as possible.

Admittedly, Borders had the same goal. How could it not? Separating as much money as possible from the customer is the intent of any good business. However, Borders felt more like a store designed by book lovers instead of a looking like a bookstore designed by business school graduates. The shorter, wooden interior bookshelves allowed for easier scanning of the stores and gave a homier feel. They seemed to have more comfy chairs readily available and the layout of the stores -- at least most of the ones I frequented -- appeared to be designed for easier traffic flow rather than just maximizing the amount of books on the floor. Yet, the decor was actually just the icing to why I really preferred Borders over B&N: Borders possessed a better SF selection. I don't know if they had a more knowledgeable buyer or their buyer's taste was similar to mine, but it doesn't matter. Either way, I always had an easier time finding something at Borders that I wanted to take home to read.

Unfortunately, the previously mentioned Amazon factor isn't finished having its way with the retail landscape. B&N is now in trouble and thanks to the actions of shoppers such as myself during the '90s and '00s, there are far fewer independent booksellers to fill in the void. Even if they were plentiful in number, none of them would have the inventory that the superstores did. The days of being able to peruse thousands of genre titles at a local bookstore are coming to a rapid end. I truly wonder how much the book buying public is going to suffer as a result -- there's just no way that Amazon, try as they might, can digitally reproduce the experience of literally thumbing your way through the bookshelves.

Luckily, I still have ways of finding good, new material to read. In addition to publications such as Locus and The New York Review of Science Fiction, there are plenty of good online review sites, as well as the recommendations of friends who consume copious amounts of SF. I'm not worried about finding good stuff to read, but I am going to miss the experience that Borders provided. Walking into a Borders for the first time back in the fall of 1990 was an experience that made such an indelible impression on me, that it changed the way I viewed bookstores. They became places in which to spend copious amounts of time, easily attend author signings, and simply socialize. That's something no online retailer, not even Amazon, will ever find a way to replace.