It might seem only reasonable for independents to gloat, at least a little, now that one of their biggest competitors, Borders Book Group, which had 1,249 stores in 2003, has begun closing its remaining 399 stores. But the response from indies to Borders's demise has been muted by the potential impact on the overall health of the bookselling business and the readers it serves. "It's jolting news for any community when a bookstore closes," says American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher, "and independent booksellers are saddened to hear that almost 11,000 Borders employees will be losing their jobs."
Teicher's official ABA response has been largely echoed by independents across the country. "It's never a good day when a bookstore closes," says Paige Garver, manager of Book Soup in West Hollywood, Calif.
"My personal feeling is, I'm sorry to see a showroom for books go away," says Steve Bercu, CEO of BookPeople in Austin, Tex. "I really believe that there's no way to replicate a physical showroom for books with anything online." As for any direct impact Borders's demise may have on his store, Bercu anticipates little or none. BookPeople has had a good summer, he says, up 3% over last year, which was the best June in the store's history.
In the short term, however, the 16-week going-out-of-business sales that began over the weekend will be painful for some nearby independents. "What troubles me," says Susan Novotny, owner of Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany and Market Block Books in Troy, N.Y., "is having them in a constant state of giving away books [at low liquidation prices]," she says. "It's been bad enough for the past 24 months to deal with the recession."
"Just because [Borders] is not directly close doesn't mean people won't go there to get bargain books instead of coming to us," observes Shelly Plumb, owner of the five-year-old Harleysville Books in Harleysville, Pa., which is 10 miles from the closest Borders. "We're sad to see people losing jobs and places closing," she adds, "but it's another reason why local shopping is so important."
Like Bercu, Jennifer Doucette, manager of Books on the Square in Providence, R.I., says she anticipates very little fallout from the closing of a nearby Borders in the Providence Place Mall. "Our store is really blessed," she says. "We're in a great neighborhood with lots of families walking around." With business ticking upward, Doucette says she has just renewed the store's lease for another five years.
That "shop local" aspect is not lost on customers, says Liz Houghton, owner of Big Hat Books in Indianapolis, three miles from two Borders locations that were part of the February closings. "People seem grateful that we're still here."
With publishers' combined losses from the bankruptcy likely to surpass $200 million, some booksellers worry about a further squeeze on credit. Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., has never let a bill go unpaid, and still, the store gets calls from publisher credit departments, says co-owner Chuck Robinson. At Skylight Books in Los Angeles, general manager Kerry Slattery predicts that publishers could "put even more pressure on us to pay exactly on time."
Others are anxious that with Borders's closing, publishers will pay even more attention to online retailers. "I'm really concerned how it's going to affect publishing in general, and the power it's going to give to Amazon," says Jill Hendrix, owner of Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C.
But it's not just publishers putting more energy into selling via e-tailers. Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., says that with so many stores closing, it will take "people out of the experience" you get when you buy books in a bricks-and-mortar store. "It's why I'm more concerned about taking Just the Right Book [the online gift store she created, justtherightbook.com] to the next step."
Although it's too soon to know, some, like Steven Baum, president of Greetings and Readings in Hunt Valley, Md., predict Borders's demise will make independents stronger. "We have seen recently, with all the publicity about Borders, a stabilization in sales," he says. Certainly that's the view of the American Booksellers Association.
"ABA is not only bullish on bricks-and-mortar bookselling but we see opportunities for our current members to expand and for new stores to open," says Teicher, who notes that independents have maintained a stable market share despite an unstable economy. "We are optimistic."