Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Ongoing Borders Wars

As a youth, it was always a neat treat to call on Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center. In the 1970s, it was the biggest bookstore in town with 31,000 square feet of space and more than 250,000 titles in stock. Founded in New York City, circa 1853, it had by then become part of the Borders Group, which operated various bookstores across the country under various names but none, as of yet, known as “Borders.”

When a larger Barnes & Noble store, with even more books to peddle, opened nearby in the 1980s—and in a lot of other places, too—Brentano’s fell by wayside. Such is the nature of dog-eat-dog business. Excuse the mixed metaphor here, but the bigger fish came to town and gobbled up the smaller fish, including a pretty big little fish like Brentano’s with its twisting wooden staircase—where patrons would sometimes plop down and peruse the merchandise—knowledgeable, customer-oriented staff, and pleasing ambiance. No, there weren't any La-Z-Boys on the premises.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and many more book superstores have opened up in the interim—in Manhattan and elsewhere—including numerous Borders stores, which I always liked courtesy of their low ceilings, library-like shelving, and—it seemed to me—greater likelihood of having oddball and otherwise hard-to-find titles for sale. But during that very same time frame, superstores have also been closing, particularly of late. And with the recent announcement that all Borders stores will shut down, the bookstore graveyard grows considerably larger.

Ironically, these bookstore giants that drove countless independents out of business have already seen their best days. A personal favorite of mine, the multi-storied, 60,000 square foot Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center on Broadway, closed its door for good in January. There are just not big enough profit margins to be realized in book selling anymore in sprawling spaces commanding humongous rents. The stiff competition from online retailers and increasing popularity of e-books compounds this bleak picture.

And just when I was getting accustomed to having all these stores around—great places for both consumers to forage far afield and for working writers to reach an audience. Poof. I shake, shiver, and shudder at what the next twenty-five years will do to books, brick-and-mortar bookstores, and writing opportunities. But then again…when one door closes....

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