Chicagoland has been hit hard by Borders's financial troubles. The company closed its Chicago flagship store in January, leaving a trilevel, 48,881-sq.-ft. empty retail space on a street corner in the heart of the high-rent Magnificent Mile. As part of its bankruptcy reorganization, Borders initially announced that 15 of its 31 Chicago area stores would close this spring, later adding a 16th store to the list. Five of those stores are in the city, 11 in the suburbs. Another Borders outlet, the Hyde Park store, had been slated for closure previously and shut its doors March 7. The closings leave one Borders store in the city: a superstore in the Loop, not far from the last Books-A-Million left in Chicago. A Waldenbooks outlet less than a mile west, near Union Station, will also remain open.
While the closing of so many bookstores in such a short period is shaking Chicago's famously vibrant bookselling world, the independent booksellers PW talked to are far more concerned about e-books than they are about Borders's fate. Early indications are that the abandoned Borders spaces will be taken over by other big box retailers such as Wal-Mart, although Barnes & Noble is said to be looking at a couple of locations. With the size of the Borders's outlets ranging from 27,000 sq. ft. to 42,000 sq. ft., the spaces are too big to lure indies, and no bookseller interviewed by PW indicated interest in setting up shop in a former Borders. "The big box model of opening big stores in every neighborhood and selling books doesn't work," explains Ed Devereux, owner of Unabridged Books, who's celebrating his store's 30th anniversary this year.
The five city Borders that are closing are located in diverse neighborhoods, ranging from Lincoln Village, in an old commercial strip near Chicago's northern edge, down to suburblike Beverly, in the far southwest. The Uptown store is in a gentrifying neighborhood with 70,688 residents, whose median family income is $42,749. The two Lincoln Park stores are located in an upscale area that's regarded citywide as a popular dining/entertainment/activities/shopping destination. Many of the 64,320 Lincoln Park residents are either single professionals or young families. One of the Lincoln Park stores is in pedestrian-friendly Lakeview, the other in a high-end retail district best accessed by car. There are a number of big box stores there, including one of the city's two Barnes & Noble outlets. (The other is downtown.)
Except for Lincoln Village and Beverly, every Chicago Borders outlet that has recently closed or will close is located within a mile of at least one of the 19 ABA member stores operating within Chicago's city limits. Unabridged Books is located a few blocks from the Lincoln Park/Lakeview Borders, and Devereux says he wasn't surprised when Borders announced it was closing that outlet. And Unabridged is staying put, with Devereux disclosing that he recently renewed a 10-year lease and installed new carpeting. "I'm making a serious commitment toward the future. We're going to be here for a while," he declares.
Ann Christophersen, co-owner of Women and Children First, a 32-year-old independent, admits that the proximity of the Uptown Borders has had a negative effect on sales at her store over the years, but "only incrementally." She believes that most Chicago independents competing with nearby Borders outlets ended up prevailing due to their staunchly loyal customer bases. The chain "underestimated" stores like hers and Unabridged, as well as the three independent bookstores near the Hyde Park Borders store, she says. As Devereux notes, the collapse of Borders is just the latest chapter in Chicago's bookstore wars. "I've seen the rise and fall of superstores before. I saw Crown [a large discount bookstore chain that once dominated Chicago] come and go," says Devereux. "We've weathered all the other challenges. We'll weather this one, too."
Out in the suburbs, 11 Borders stores will close and another 13 will stay open, competing for customers with 26 suburban B&N stores and 17 ABA member stores, plus six Barbara's O'Hare airport outlets. The 19,636 residents of Deerfield will lose their Borders store, as will Evanston's 77,857 residents. Six suburban communities will continue to have both B&N and Borders outlets; the largest, wealthiest one—Naperville, with a median $130,164 family income—still has Borders, B&N, and Anderson's Bookshop, a 146-year-old business that's been selling books since 1964 and is PW's Bookseller of the Year.
Janis Irvine, the owner of the Book Bin, in Northbrook, says she thinks her store is seeing "more and more new customers," but isn't sure if the Borders store a mile away that's closing has anything to do with it. She's offering 25% off the first purchase to any new customer coming in with a Borders gift card, but has yet to have any takers. She is, however, holding out hope that Borders customers will eventually discover her 40-year-old business.
"I have a feeling they're people who like bookstores and won't just fall into Amazon," Irvine says.