April 01, 2007

Borders and B&N Followup

by Alan Beatts

Two months ago I made some comments in this column about holiday sales at Borders Books and Barnes & Noble.  Two readers wrote very thoughtful emails to me regarding what I'd said.  I've been meaning to address their thoughts here for the past two months but for one reason and another I haven't had the chance.

However, first a brief recap is probably in order -- I noted in the January issue that sales at both Borders and B&N were down compared to last year and I went on to note that our sales were up.  I was obviously pleased by this news because both companies engage in business practices that I think are distasteful (though to be fair, B&N is a worse offender than Borders).  Another reason for my pleasure was the way that those two companies have provided the economic pressure that has driven may non-chain stores out of business.  In retrospect I can see that my tone was a bit gloating, despite my attempt to make it otherwise.

In response one reader, who had been a partner at a bookshop that had to close, wrote -

". . . I sadly went to work as a manager at Barnes & Noble.  It's true B&N is like the evil empire, they are the Starbucks of Bookstores.  But still it is a living, and albeit sometimes a stressful and scablike one . . . it is a living.

I am really happy that you are doing well, I mail order books from you often and keep up on what's going on with your store . . . .  But it sort of hurts to see the gloating of the misfortune of others.  Sadly  hours are getting cut and we are having to let great booksellers go.  Would you hire them?  Most indie bookstore owners see fit to punish  ex B&N employees as if they were scabs, when they look for new jobs.  It's unfair.  We have to work too, and alot of us are store owners who lost our business'.  Again I congratulate you on how great you are doing . . . but you never know who's out there buying your merchandise and reading your newsletter.  I must say, it stung quite a bit."

Upon reading this, I felt terrible.  In the first place, I really didn't mean to be critical of the people who work at Borders and B&N.  Many of them are passionate, talented booksellers who bring as much to the "business of words" as anyone at an independent store.  I'm certainly not happy at the prospect of anyone losing their job, especially when losing that job could mean that they would no longer be able to be a bookseller.  And, considering how hard it is for an independent store to co-exist in the same community as a chain store, a chain store closure might well mean that there would be no jobs in that community for bookselling.  And worse, no bookstore in that community at all.

I was also shocked that any store owner would treat a prospective employee badly because they had worked for B&N in the past.  That seems the height of foolishness, since one of the things that can be said for stores like B&N is that they are a much more demanding work environment than many other bookstores.  My experience is that the staff at chain stores are expected to work faster, harder and for less pay than the staff at independent shops.  And I say that as (gasp) a former assistant manager for Crown Books, the cruel father of cut-throat chain bookselling.  Who in their right mind would dismiss out of hand a potential employee who really knew how to work under pressure?

So, I'm a little bit ashamed that I got so wrapped up in the us-versus-them mentality that I didn't consider how my words might seem to someone standing on the other side of that silly little fence.  And for that I'm very sorry.

I'm very grateful to the person who wrote me about that article.  When all's said and done (and after a deal of thought), I still do hope that Borders and Barnes & Noble continue to lose sales.  I know that they're not going to vanish (at least not suddenly) and I'm unhappy that their financial troubles, if they worsen, will cause lost jobs for booksellers and create communities that lack a real bookstore.  But, as long as they exist, the shadow that they cast will prevent many independent stores from opening.

It's like a forest.  The larger trees reach a point where they block the light and stop smaller trees from growing.  If nothing changes, the whole forest suffers because there's no new growth.  Every once in a while there'll be a storm or a fire that clears out some of the old growth and gives the saplings a chance.  The storm or fire is terrible and causes destruction, but it has to happen or else the forest stagnates.

The bookselling world is dominated by some very large trees right now and they've been squeezing out the smaller growth for a long time.  I wouldn't want to see the whole forest burn but I think it's past time for a bit of a storm to clear out the deadwood and knock over a few of those old trees.  I just hope that it's a storm and not a fire.  It may be that there's so much deadwood in this forest that the whole thing could burn.  And that would be terrible indeed.

I suppose, in a perfect world, I hope that the chains will close stores.  And I hope that new, independent stores will open in the vacuum left by those closures -- stores that will not only provide jobs for the former staff of the chain stores but also give their former managers and staff a chance to open their own stores.  It might be difficult at the start but I believe that the final result would be a more diverse and vibrant bookselling landscape.

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