Because California is losing more Borders stores than any other state in the country, the region's booksellers are uniquely poised to find ways to turn the ramifications of the bankruptcy proceedings to their advantage. "In the long run, the indies will benefit because there will be fewer outlets selling books," says Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, referring to the possible exodus by former Borders customers from the bankrupt chain to NCIBA member indie stores. "Still, it's hard to predict exactly what will happen until everything shakes out and the liquidation sales are over." Borders is closing 39 locations in California. Major cities such as Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco are all losing two outlets each, while about two dozen smaller cities are losing stores.
Landon's primary concern is the impact of Borders's bankruptcy on publishers, who could look to tightening their belts by cutting promotional and marketing dollars as well as cutting author tours. Still, Landon suggests that a real opportunity exists for other channels to pick up sales that had gone to Borders, which might produce more in marketing dollars if the indies start buying more books from publishers.
None of NCIBA's members have reported efforts to shift their inventory in response to the Borders closures. "We just keep meeting the demands of the market, from store to store as always," Landon says. "There will be communities in this part of California that won't have any bookstores and are going to be underserved. It wouldn't surprise me to start hearing from Chambers of Commerce about how to open a bookstore. Come Christmas there should be some real activity."
Books Inc., which has 13 stores in California, saw sales increase at all but one of its locations in March, and company president Michael Tucker attributes the gains in part to Borders's bankruptcy. "We're already benefiting from this," Tucker says. "The first thing we did was to run an ad in the local papers that said, ‘We're still open.' There will be a migration in all of this, and it will be good for the indies." Books Inc. was hard hit in the 1990s when the expansion of chain bookstores began, and Tucker and his late partner, Michael Grant, had to abandon many of their existing locations where Borders and Barnes & Noble appeared in California. Since then, Books Inc. has restructured and opened in different locations, none of them in shopping centers. "We plunk down in real neighborhoods, where people are going to the post office and the grocery store, not just where retailers are," notes Tucker, implying that malls are no longer effective environments for bookstores. "Don't go off your model," Tucker advises. "It's dangerous."
Landon agrees with that assessment. "The typical indie is now between 2,000 and 5,000 square feet, and they're not in shopping malls," he notes. "When it comes to being part of the synergy of a neighborhood, our stores have that down cold. While what's happened to Borders is unfortunate, NCIBA is very well situated as a group now."
Borders is closing 26 stores in Southern California, where Books Inc. only has one outlet. Now Tucker is looking at the Los Angeles region as a possible area for expansion. "We were heading in that direction in fall of '08, but got derailed by the economy," he says. "Suddenly it's looking good again. There are some great locations down there." He hopes to find jobs for former Borders employees as well; Books Inc. has seen a sharp increase in applicants from the chain in the past few weeks. "There are some fine booksellers at Borders," Tucker says. "We've hired about 25 of them in the last 18 months."
Jennifer Bigelow, executive director of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association, echoes Landon's take on the Borders bankruptcy. "Yes, there is definitely opportunity out there that didn't exist before," she says. "I think Borders customers will find our indies here." Bigelow has already had a few calls from possible booksellers looking for information about opening new stores. She has referred them to areas where Borders is closing and encourages them to investigate the demographics of neighborhoods that will soon be void of any bookstores.
Bigelow is deeply aware of the number of booksellers who will find themselves unemployed in the coming months. "One of my priorities right now is to add a page to SCIBA's Web site where, regardless of affiliation, people can post their bookselling résumés and hopefully find jobs in our member stores," she explains. "It will be a great resource, a way for us to reach out to Borders's ex-employees."
In the same vein, she encourages Southern California indies to find ways to capture their share of the Borders market. The fact remains, though, that the chain will still have 44 stores in California.