As the bookstore chains grew in the 1980s and ‘90s, the number of independent booksellers fell dramatically, but those that survived expect little pop from the impending closing of 200 Borders stores as part of the retailer's bankruptcy reorganization. Indies in areas like Chicago and its environs, where Borders is shutting 18 outlets, have at least one Barnes & Noble on their doorstep. Nationwide, the country's biggest bookseller has a 75% overlap with the closing stores. "I don't think Borders's closing is a sort of panacea for the stores that still remain. We have to make sure we do our best to make ourselves attractive to people looking for another physical store to patronize," says Jack Cella, manager of Seminary Co-op in Chicago. Adds Margot Sage-El, owner of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., "In the last few years it hasn't been the big-box stores that are a threat to us. We've co-existed peacefully. It's online retailers."
Nor are Amazon and other online retailers the only competitors indies face. "We've got too many other people we're competing with," says Joel Tomlin, co-owner of Landmark Booksellers in Franklin, Tenn., less than 10 miles from a Borders that is closing. "I'm the only bookstore in Franklin, but I have five nonprofit competitors: gift shops at two historic sites, the local library that holds a sale about four times a year, a Goodwill, and the Salvation Army." Tomlin also cites competition from publishers, who are moving more in a direct-to-consumer direction.
In addition, the Great Recession has been hard on independents, not just Borders. Joseph-Beth, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, closed several stores in advance of its November bankruptcy filing. Earlier this month Page One Bookstore in Albuquerque, N.Mex., filed for Chapter 11 and may not emerge. Other stores have simply closed, like 60-year-old Biermaier's Books in Minneapolis; An Open Book in Greeley, Colo.; and Emerson's Bookshop in Old Saybrook, Conn.
In the short term, Borders's liquidation sales could have a negative impact on nearby indies as readers stock up on books at going-out-of-business sales. Yet some independents are seeing a trickle of Borders customers. At Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Wis., near three Borders slated to close, owner Daniel Goldin says that two sets of customers came in and told him that Boswell's is going to be their new store. At Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boston's Back Bay, just blocks from a closing Borders, customers who had gone to the GOB sale said that they couldn't find what they wanted and couldn't get any help, so they came to Trident, according to general manager Michael Lemanski.
For some booksellers, the closings are an opportunity to ask for help. Newtonville Books in Newtonville, Mass., sent an e-mail blast seeking 500 new memberships so they can decide if they should renew their lease next year. So far 75 people have taken up the challenge. Other bookstores are actively trying to lure Borders customers. Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., is offering to exchange Borders Rewards Plus cards for $20 Vroman's gift cards for the first 200 people. Lanora Hurley, owner of the Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, Wis., sent a postcard to households close to where a Borders is closing offering 10% off any in-store purchase. Borders Reward card holders who sign up for Next Chapter's program get a 20% discount. Several stores have received résumés from former and about-to-be-former Borders employees, and Lisa Somerville, co-owner of Apostrophe Books in Long Beach, Calif., expects to hire one or two in the spring.
Still, the overall impact of so many stores closing has caused what Nicola Rooney, owner of Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., labels "a nervousness" about book retail in general. "Last week, I had the same conversation 30 times," says Apostrophe's Somerville. "If Borders is going down, what does this mean? Is it just going to be Kindles and e-books?" The day after the bankruptcy filing, Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., tried to direct the conversation by sending an e-mail announcing two wine-and-cheese gatherings next month to discuss bookselling in a changing landscape. "We are determined," she wrote, "to be the independent bookstore that remains standing in this brave new world."
Some stores repositioned themselves long ago, like Mystery Lovers Bookshop in the Pittsburgh area, home to the very first Walden retail store. "After the superstores and mass markets developed, a lot of casual readers got burned away," says co-owner Richard Goldman. "We learned to survive with more dedicated readers. We've really ended up focusing on the people who care about reading." The store eliminated its frequent buyer program in 2009 and saw sales rise in 2010; so far in 2011, sales are up 7.5%.
Just what the impact of Borders's downsizing will be on independents in the long term is unclear. As Kelly Estep, manager of Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville, Ky., points out, Carmichael's customers aren't Borders customers; no one is saying they will shop more often at Carmichael's now. Not that Estep and other independents aren't hoping. n
—With reporting by Claire Kirch and Marc Schultz