February 01, 2015

Borderlands Books to Close in March

Updated 2/1/15 at 1:16 pm

In 18 years of business, Borderlands has faced a number of challenges.  The first and clearest was in 2000, when our landlord increased our rent by 100% and we had to move to our current location on Valencia Street.  All of the subsequent ones have been less clear-cut but more difficult.  The steady movement towards online shopping, mostly with Amazon, has taken a steady toll on bookstores throughout the world and Borderlands was no exception.  After that and related to it, has been the shift towards ebooks and electronic reading devices.  And finally the Great Recession of 2009 hit us very hard, especially since we had just opened a new aspect to the business in the form of our cafe.

But, through all those challenges, we've managed to find a way forward and 2014 was the best year we've ever had.  The credit for that achievement goes to the fine and extraordinary group of people who have come together to work here.  Their hard work, combined with the flawless execution and attention to detail provided by Jude Feldman, Borderlands' General Manager, is the reason we've succeeded for these past 18 years.

Throughout the years we've managed to plan for the problems that we could predict and, when we couldn't plan for them, we've just worked our asses off to get through.  Overall, Borderlands has managed to defeat every problem that has come our way.  At the beginning of 2014, the future of the business looked, if not rosy, at least stable and very positive.  We were not in debt, sales were meeting expenses and even allowing a small profit, and, perhaps most importantly, the staff and procedures at both the bookstore and the cafe were well established and working smoothly.

So it fills us with sorrow and horror to say that we will be closing very soon.

In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in principal and we believe that it's possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco -- Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.  Consequently we will be closing our doors no later than March 31st.  The cafe will continue to operate until at least the end of this year.

Many businesses can make adjustments to allow for increased wages.  The cafe side of Borderlands, for example, should have no difficulty at all.  Viability is simply a matter of increasing prices.  And, since all the other cafes in the city will be under the same pressure, all the prices will float upwards.  But books are a special case because the price is set by the publisher and printed on the book.  Furthermore, for years part of the challenge for brick-and-mortar bookstores is that companies like Amazon.com have made it difficult to get people to pay retail prices.  So it is inconceivable to adjust our prices upwards to cover increased wages.

The change in minimum wage will mean our payroll will increase roughly 39%.  That increase will in turn bring up our total operating expenses by 18%.  To make up for that expense, we would need to increase our sales by a minimum of 20%.  We do not believe that is a realistic possibility for a bookstore in San Francisco at this time.

The other obvious alternative to increasing sales would be to decrease expenses.  The only way to accomplish the amount of savings needed would be to reduce our staff to: the current management (Alan Beatts and Jude Feldman), and one other part-time employee.  Alan would need to take over most of Jude's administrative responsibilities and Jude would work the counter five to six days per week.  Taking all those steps would allow management to increase their work hours by 50-75% while continuing to make roughly the same modest amount that they make now (by way of example, Alan's salary was $28,000 last year).  That's not an option for obvious reasons and for at least one less obvious one -- at the planned minimum wage in 2018, either of them would earn more than their current salary working only 40 hours per week at a much less demanding job that paid minimum wage.

Although the major effects of the increasing minimum wage won't be felt for a while, we've chosen to close now instead of waiting for two reasons.  First, the minimum wage has already increased from $10.74 per hour to $11.05 (as of January 1st) and it will increase again on May 1st to $12.25.  Continuing to pay the higher wage without any corresponding increase in income will expend the store's cash assets.  In essence, the store will have less money (or inventory) six months from now, so closing sooner rather than later makes better business sense.  But more importantly, keeping up our morale and continuing to serve our customers while knowing that we are going to close has been very painful for all of us over the past three months.  Continuing to do so for even longer would be horrible.  Far better to close at a time of our choosing, keep everyone's sorrow to a minimum, and then get on with our lives.

Some of you may be wondering, what can I do to help?  Honestly, the best thing that you can do for us is -- come in and buy books!  We've got an awful lot of damn good ones and we'd love to see every single one go to someone who appreciates it before we close.  We're also going to be selling all our shelves and other fixtures.  It would make us very happy to know that our hand-built shelves were going to sit in the living room of someone who was a customer of ours and who appreciates their history.  And finally, if you're looking for a way to remember Borderlands (and you already have enough shelves and books -- crazy though that idea is) -- we're having hooded sweatshirts made with our logo and "1997 - 2015" on them. Once we're closed, there'll never be another place to get them again. We’ll have those in by the middle of February.

But, more importantly than coming in and buying stuff, please come in and say, "Hi".  The best thing about this business has been our customers and we're going to miss you all (well, most of you at least <grin>).  But please do be considerate of us; we all understand that finding that we're closing may be sad and upsetting but remember -- it's even harder for us. Borderlands was our livelihood, our pride & joy, and, for many of us, it was a big part of what defined us.  Although we understand your feeling of loss, it is dwarfed by what we are feeling. So come in, give us your best wishes, and try to be cheerful.  Everything changes and everything ends.  We did a hell of a job for a long time and now it's time for us to do something else.

Some of you reading this probably have questions popping into your minds -- Is there a way to keep Borderlands open?  What alternatives have you considered?  What about moving out of SF?  What is going to happen to the cafe?  Is the business for sale?  And so on.  Before asking us your questions, please wait for a week.  We'll be sending out and posting updates frequently over the next week or so and those updates will probably answer most of your questions.  We will also be holding a public meeting in the cafe at seven P. M. on Thursday, February 12th. We'll be on hand to answer questions and moderate a discussion about alternatives to closing the store.  Although we do not believe that any viable alternative exists, we also think that we have a very smart and imaginative group of customers.  It is not impossible that we've missed a potential solution, and so we want an opportunity to hear your thoughts.

Thank you all for your support, business, and friendship over these last 18 years.  This has been the best job that any of us has ever had and we're very grateful to you for giving us the chance to do it.

This post was updated on 2/1/15 at 1:16 pm to clarify that the cafe will continue operating after the bookstore is closed.

54 comments:

  1. I'll miss Borderlands terribly. It's one of my very favorite bookstores in the world---always such a welcoming spot for visting in San Francisco, with the nice people and the great, quirky, extensive collection of books. And I've loved doing readings there. Thanks and cheers to Alan, Jude, and the rest of the gang. I'll stop in for one or two more shopping runs while there's time.

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    1. I wonder how many people writing comments voted for this Idiotic minimum wage law. Someone loses a business, the workers lose their jobs and the area loses a really great bookstore all because the morons who voted for that law are simpletons that are unable or unwilling to understand simple economics. Morons all.

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    2. Hitmanfan45 - perfectly said. Too bad this and other closings will not result in one "Progressive" reconsidering their votes or economic policies. They know that they care, so the actual results of any one policy are really unimportant. Reality isn't their strong suit. Good luck with your sponsorship private welfare program Borderlands, I bet you wish (I know I do) that you could survive on your merits in the marketplace, but sadly, you cannot.

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    3. I wish someone with the ability would sponsor a ballot initiative to cut the SF mayor and city council's pay. let's crowd source it--they are dead weight.

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  2. Alan and Jude and the Borderlands gang -- I'm so sorry to hear this. I'll always be thankful that you supported my books, which was gold to a non-famous midlister. And when you hosted my reading last year, it was the best stop on the book tour. I'll miss you, and the community will miss you. Take care, and good luck with your next endeavor.

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  3. So sorry to hear! Good luck in your other pursuits!

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  4. Borderlands Books was one of my main reasons for moving to the Bay Area. No, really, it was.

    The staff are without exception friendly and knowledgeable, and did a lot to build a real community. I hope everyone will be OK, regardless of what happens.

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  5. I love you guys SO, SO MUCH! This is so hard to hear. Thank you for everything you've done over the years for me and other authors. I wish there was a way I could participate in that meeting on February 12. I'll definitely be promoting the store in the meantime to help sell a product and hoodies.

    Seriously, I love you. And the kitties. You are amazing.

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  6. Up here in Eugene, one beloved bookstore started holding "rent parties" where patrons would drop by for the festivities and donate cash. Good luck to you, in any event.

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  7. After the grad school years where I could only afford to check out books from the library, I finally got back into the mode of buying books. Then I started going to author signings. The setup for author events at the cafe was so convenient; it eliminated a lot of the stress of attending signings at some other places. I really enjoyed the handful of events I was able to go to at Borderlands before this bad news struck. I was looking forward to many more, and even daydreaming of maybe having my own there someday.

    I'm so sorry that a variety of forces (publishing, government, the return of the bubble) have collided in this way. I support a higher minimum wage, but there needs to be support from industry and government.

    If there's any way for Borderlands to survive, I hope it can be found. If not, I hope everyone involved will be OK, and that some brave and crazy souls will open another genre bookstore in NorCal. (Otherwise, there will be none after you.) Contra Costa County, maybe? Rent's lower, and we have BART...

    Sigh.

    Best wishes to everyone.

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  8. (I can't seem to find out if Dark Carnival is still open or not, but I guess I'll trek out there soon to find out. Either way...a huge loss, and a huge deficit for NorCal.)

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  9. Am really pained to read this, the issues of running a marginal business hit a little too close to home. At least you are proceeding with a rational plan. May it go smoothly.

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  10. So very, very sorry to hear this -- I was just in the store last week, and came home telling my husband how happy I was that I got to make it part of my rounds every time I went down to San Francisco. Whatever happens, we send our best wishes to everyone involved with the store. We will most definitely be coming by this week to say hi and offer what help we can, even if only by offering a good home for some books and shelves.

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  11. Thank you for holding on as long as you could. This place is a treasure and I just wish I could afford the cost and the space to have bought more books from you. I shudder to think that yet another gourmet juice bar or such will replace this space in the future. Here's to a safe landing for all Borderlanders.

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  12. Oh, no! I've just gotten to a place in my life where I can get back up to see you more often! Dang it. Dangit dangit dangit.

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  13. Could you join with Lost Weekend? I think at one point they were looking for a co-tenant!! A match made in space heaven if you ask me!!

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  14. Sad and disheartening to lose your dream and for us to lose you as our preferred vendor of excellent books and damn fine otherworldly gifts. Will miss you immensely and trust that whatever you choose to tackle next will be just as brilliant as Borderlands was. Thank you for fighting as long as you did to keep your doors open and for giving us a chance to help you in return.

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  15. Borderlands is one of my favorite places in the city. My first author event was "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" just two weeks after I moved here. It was before the cafe; the speaker podium was in the corner by the office window and the chairs fanned out toward the front. Very cozy. I've been to every Patrick Rothfuss visit (including the overflow midnight event!). My girlfriend and I moved out of the neighborhood four years ago, but we still make special weekend visits. For a few month span, one night a week we read and ate dinner in the cafe before she went to an art class. A cousin moved to SF in November after quitting a job at Powell's in Portland and Borderlands was a highlight of the welcome tour (which also included Philz of course). Mostly coincidence, of the three books I've read so far this year all are paper. One's a new release hardcover from Borderlands and two (non-genre) are from Green Apple. I love Borderlands and will certainly never forget it.

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  16. Have you heard of the Scarecrow Project? Seattle's amazing video store was able to successfully crowdfund a conversion to nonprofit status last year, allowing them to remain open despite similar issues of digital viewing and online ordering taking over for in-person media sales. Borderlands doesn't have exactly the same archival function as a rental store, but as a social and community space that people are passionate about you may have a chance to go a similar route. (And hey, who says you couldn't add a lending library if you wanted?)

    No one could blame you for closing at this point if that's what you choose, but with such a great store and a large, loving following there may be other options. Best of luck with everything in the future.

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  17. Have you considered converting to a worker-owned cooperative (ie make all employees owners) in which case the minimum wage law might not apply?

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  18. Ah yes, the grotesque San Francisco political mental disease eats its own.

    Isn't the first and won't be the last, but all those little people who manage to keep the fewer and fewer jobs will have a few more pennies to rub together before heading out to a life on the streets.

    Too bad most of the long time lovers of Borderlands have been voting for its death for decades.

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  19. Damn, I'm very sorry to hear this... I wanted to visit during my big San Francisco vacation a few years ago (I'm from Salt Lake), and sadly wasn't able to work out the timing. I always thought I'd make it back. And it's doubly disheartening to learn you're being done in by something I believe in, a living wage for all.

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  20. Really sorry to hear this... :-( Even though I've only seen you at shows like Potlatch and FOGcon, you've always had great books there (despite being in the business myself, I've always seen something new and interesting when browsing your tables). I hope you can find some way to make things work out, even though your knowledgeable and stark assessment of the situation makes that look tough... Good luck!

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  21. If, according to your argument, raising the prices on books is not a viable option, why not raise the prices in the cafe to offset the extra costs due to the minimum wage increase and supplement the bookstore. Are the book store and cafe considered two separate businesses? The cafe is always packed, and your coffee is the cheapest on Valencia. Id gladly pay more for a latte if it kept the bookshop open.

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    1. I doubt that would offset the massive inventory carrying costs, for one, which would be FAR larger on the book side than the cafe side. Inventory is naturally limited in a cafe by perishability

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  22. This makes me so sad. I lived in SF for 25 years and bought books here every week since they've been open. Since being priced out of living in SF and moving to Vallejo - I still make a month trek into the city and come by my favorite book store to purchase books. I'll try to make 1-2 more trips in before they are gone forever. I'll be sure to get a hoodie too along with books. Thanks everyone! It's been a blast!

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  23. Hello! I love your store, and am very sad to hear that you're closing.

    I have a suggestion (admittedly an ignorant one in terms of laws/regulations/feasibility):

    I've noticed that in SF, there is a general tax applied at restaurants that is specific to the area (there's some sort of general statement regarding it at the end of the bill). Could you do something like this? A fee for each book purchased?

    That, coupled with a suggestion made above (to increase cafe revenues to help out the book store), seems like it might be enough, if it were a feasible plan with the existing laws.

    Your customers are loyal, and I don't think they'd mind a fee, especially if it's explained.

    Regardless, thank you for the recommendations, and all the books!

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  24. I'm sure your support of the minimum wage will be a source of great comfort to your former employees as they sit at home scouring the want ads.

    PS As bookstores like to tout themselves as being on the vanguard of free speech, I respectfully expect you to not censor this comment.

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  25. I am so very sorry to hear this.

    If some sort of crowd funding is starting, I will donate as heavily as I can. If borderlands needs donations to survive, I think this may be a case where if you ask, you shall receive.

    Also, the idea of mimicking the SF restaurant "health care surcharge" might work really well. Add a 10% upcharge to all purchases after the fact. This is exactly what Booksmith in San Anselmo does.

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  26. I usually say min wage tends to patronize min wage — ergo, an increase can increase sales in such businesses. A boutique book store probably caters more to the high end (I have probably been in it, years ago when I lived there). The bright side is that the employees will find better paying (if possibly less amenable) employment elsewhere.

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  27. I am devastated to hear this and I would love to help if I can. I helped with the Adobe Bookshop crowdfunding campaign in 2013, please let me know if I can help with yours.

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  28. Terrible news. Borderlands Books is an amazing shop run by wonderful people. Please let me know if there's anything I can do to help.

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  29. Minimum wage is the principle of force applied to nothing more than an agreement between two people. Because force is applied is exactly why it causes problems and makes life harder than it needs to be. Force means ultimately that there is a gun behind the law - which can be direct or indirect. We need to learn that force in human relationships does not work - any where or any time.

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  30. I'm sorry to hear that you're closing and I like your store. But I'm not convinced by the rationale you provide in your blog post. If everything you say is true, then every independent bookstore in SF will be shut down in the near future. Call me naively optimistic, but I don't think that's going to happen any time soon. Regarding the competition from Amazon, why not sell electronic books on your own website? I believe Green Apple books (also in SF) has been doing that for years. And in regards to making your store an experience unique from that of online shopping, clearly you can put a lot more emphasis on in-store and community events. The Booksmith on Haight St. has had sell out crowds (with people BUYING tickets) for their in-store events. And did your store take part in the first "California Bookstore Day" in 2014? I was at Green Apple Books that day and their store was so crowded that it was hard to move. I was standing in the long check out line for a half hour. I'm afraid your blog post sounds like its coming from someone who no longer wants to be in SF, not from someone for whom it's no longer possible.

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  31. First they came for the oil companies but I had an off oil agenda so I stayed quiet. Then they came for big Pharma but that whole industry is based on greed and opportunism when people are most vulnerable, so I said nothing. Then they came for fast food places, which use processed foods and don't allow unions, so I said 'serves them right'. When my turn came at the ballot box, I proudly voted for a living wage.

    Then my local bookstore got shut down. Instead of reflecting on my own part in their demise, I wrote 3 asinine ideas about how they could stay in business on their website, and I no longer feel guilty. Maybe I'll buy one of their former employees a coffee if I have trouble sleeping. The owners are probably just greedy anyways, other stores stay in business just fine. Freaking capitalists, blaming a living wage for their own failures.

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  32. Thank you, Borderlands and especially Jude, for your support for small genre presses. It can't possibly have been worth your email and shipping/other time to have found a home for my publication while it lasted, but you did it anyway, and with invaluable encouragement as well. (Sam M-B, Durham, NC)

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  33. Leo, everything they say is true, and yes, the clock is ticking on all independent bookstores in SF, along with all the independent delis, coffee shops, etc -- anything that is a labor of love with a low margin is now out of business, whether they realize it or not.

    This is why it is bad to have a populace and politicians who are Bad At Math and politicians who have never struggled to make payroll on Friday.

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  34. Yes Leo, you know more than they do when it comes to running their business and I'm sure your good at telling us all how to live and work.

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  35. Just think this one through (from the post)..."Many businesses can make adjustments to allow for increased wages. The cafe side of Borderlands, for example, should have no difficulty at all. Viability is simply a matter of increasing prices."

    Hmm. And what do you think happens when these employees you are now paying a "living wage" go to their local stores (or your store) and the prices have all been increased? The wage doesn't seem so living anymore, now does it? Guess they'll have to make the trek to the edge of town Walmart on the weekends just to make their new "living wage" work for them.

    Granted, I'm not the brightest bulb in the pack but, fortunately for me, you really don't have to be that bright to understand the ebb and flow of money in a closed system. How can so many people be so naive about basic, common sense economic principals?

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  36. I wonder of all those lamenting the decision of this business to close it's doors, were also the same ones pushing for this new minimum wage rate in the first place.

    If so, are you pleased with the outcome?

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  37. Reading this blog and the comments reminds me of Atlas Shrugged.

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  38. I had a similar idea in mind, but I tried to phrase it in my post without any potentially incendiary references to someone like Ayn Rand.

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  39. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dana-milbank-no-calamity-yet-as-seatac-wash-adjusts-to-15-minimum-wage/2014/09/05/d12ba922-3503-11e4-9e92-0899b306bbea_story.html

    From Article: "Such early indications aren’t conclusive, of course. As my colleague Catherine Rampell pointed out, the ultimate effects of the $15 wage in Seattle are unknowable. But the effects are a bit more knowable in SeaTac, because the $15 minimum has already been implemented. Nine months in, there have been rumors of employers cutting back on retirement benefits and paid vacations to offset the wage increases. Cedarbrook Lodge has said it may cut back on benefits such as free meals and free parking. But there is no significant disruption."

    Yes it will require adjustment, but that doesn't make it impossible. And, in contrast with what Borderlands' management claims, it seems to me they have some unique strengths. They're already blessed with a large cafe which could be utilized for a great deal more community events. Other bookstores would kill for a space like that on such a well known street.

    I'm afraid the comparison someone else made to Atlas Shrugged sounds accurate to me. This does not sound like a situation where the increased minimum wage killed a business. This is a case of management feeling overly persecuted and deciding they don't like it here anymore.

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  40. Apparently a lot of the people here think that the problem is that the "management" (meaning essentially, most of the people working at Borderlands) just isn't trying hard enough.

    The only person who would say that is someone who has never tried to run a failing business. Math doesn't care how hard you try. It's numbers, and they are the coldest master in the universe.

    People worked at Borderlands because they love working in a bookstore, not because they were getting rich on it. This isn't case of "whaa, I won't make enough profit" because those people weren't working at Borderlands to start with. This is "I can't keep this up because I'm losing money every time I unlock the door."

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  41. How about opening a new store outside of the city limits and the oppressiveness of San Francisco ? Your fans will follow !

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  42. I'm very sorry to hear that yet another brick-and-mortar bookstore is going to bite the dust. One of my favorite bookstores was run out of downtown Austin and until recently I thought they'd closed.

    I'm going to add my voice to that of the others who've suggested you find a way to change the business structure so that you can remain open. There are a lot of great suggestions in the posts and I encourage you to try some of them before throwing in the towel.

    One comment about the cafe -- the store where I buy most of my books has a cafe and if they didn't, I'd find another store. More than once I've sat down with a selection and cup of coffee and gone back to pick up another title. Admittedly these are very dry technical books (because, nerd ...) but it is the cafe that keeps me there. The discount used bookstore that's 5 miles closer doesn't have a space to plotz and read.

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  43. You were mentioned in metafilter.
    http://www.metafilter.com/146672/RIP-Borderland-Books

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  44. I'm really sorry to hear it. I was only PHYSICALLY there once, but I loved my visit. I don't really come into SF much - but had I done so your store would've been a go-too destination and I"m sad it won't be there for me to return to in the future.

    I might be in the market for one of your hoodies. But seeing as I am not in SF - how would I go about obtaining one? By mail...?

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  45. My family's quite saddened by this news, we'll sorely miss taking our son on our biannual pilgrimage from Davis to Seanan's release events. We've been bringing him since he was a few weeks old, and have been quite impressed by the friendly and welcoming atmosphere at Borderlands, as well as the wonderful selection of books. I'll certainly treasure my memories of our visits, and hope to see you for one more before you close.

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  46. Minimum wage goes up, prices go up. In gov't wisdom to higher prices, minimum wage goes up... repeat ad nauseum... all the while gov't looks good for continually raising minimum wage, pats self on back, continues getting democrat votes

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  47. I would think about experimenting with salary plus commission for sales staff, expecting that the commission would itself result in additional overall sales since employees would be more likely to recommend friends, families and associates to the store.

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  48. Ooops can we say min wage backfire? I guarantee you will see more and more of this. Business need low wage workers, these jobs are not meant to be career jobs but rather stepping stones.

    If workers want a "livable" wage they should earn it by getting educated and getting skills that employers pay good money for.

    Min wage laws do more harm than good. Period. What's funny is that it's not the Big Businesses that get hurt the most by min wage, it's the SMALL BUSINESSES. #ProgressiveBackfire

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  49. Unfortunately, Taylor Cane, reality doesn't care about what these jobs are "meant" to be. People do raise families on these jobs, and the skills that you talk about are not always accessible to the vast majority of Americans.

    Minimum wage laws do harm small businesses disproportionately, since they are unable to sustain inefficiencies as long as larger ones. In time, only those businesses continue to exist that do make sense in a given economic context. Theoretically, America could compete with China but allowing sub-dollar wage rates, but that's hardly something to aspire to.

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  50. After years of low paying jobs I finally began earning $15 hr doing semi-skilled work at a non-profit. Not to be vain,but the $15 minimum wage makes me feel like I am at the bottom earning $7 hr all over again. Quite possibly my employer will not be able to afford this law if/when it comes to my neck of the woods.

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