About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

white elephant by white house

When Borders started expanding nationally in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the DC market was a major one. Borders #10, #29, #45, #50, #89, #112, an overrepresentation of their best stores. Borders #50 at 18th and L Sts. in downtown Washington was probably for a very very long time one of the best Borders in the country, maybe even one of the best bookstores in the country. An incredible depth of selection, sold tons of books, lunchtime at the store was like a gold mine five days a week.

So ten years ago, when Borders opened up a new store in downtown DC around a mile from their downtown flagship and right by the White House, big things were clearly expected. Huge store on two main levels each with one or two mezzanine levels, filled with books in all shapes, sizes, varieties.

And it was a white elephant.

It just never sold the quantity of books that you'd expect from a store that was clearly designed to be a major store. Not even close. Maybe it was because it was a downtown location that looked nice but really wasn't. One block from the White House meant the store could only be approached from one direction, so even though it was in the middle of downtown it was at the same time on the edge of downtown, with less ability to draw the day crowd from a radius.

And now the white elephant is closed. Noticed on that last trip to DC that they were having a going out of business store at that location. I did some math and asked an employee if it was a ten-year lease that was up, which is kind of what it was. Twenty year lease, but some kind of buyout option or such halfway through, so Borders is gone and a local restaurant chain will turn the space into a downstairs night club and an upstairs restaurant, which might give you an idea of the space that the downstairs could become a night spot. You can read about the plans in the Washington Post article here.

This is in keeping with a pronouncement during a conference call earlier in the year that Borders would try and be more aggressive in getting out of bad leases, so this is a good thing and a sad thing. I mean, I'm never entirely happy to see a bookstore close, but I can't imagine with the rent this location must have carried and the volume the store was doing that Borders ever made a dime at this location. And when you have to start taking a big space like this that was designed to have a big music and movies department, only there aren't any sales in music and movies any longer, and start renovating out the music and movies and still making the store look somewhat filled with merchandise... part of me wishes they'd known 18 months ago the store wasn't long for the world and not spent whatever they spent on the last round of renovations, same thing at the West Hollywood Borders that closed at the start of 2010.

And yet as happy as I kind of am to see that Borders will no longer be allocating resources to this white elephant, I remember the excitement I felt on my first visit ten years ago, exploring every nook and cranny of a huge space lovingly designed to be a showplace for the printed word.

The 18th and L store is still there, and still good, but will never be as good as it was. After three rounds of renovation most of the character was renovated out of it. And in the cash flow crisis two years ago, the depth of selection at the truly great Borders stores was one of the things that was foolishly sacrificed and can never be regained.

Borders alas has a lot of legacy real estate like store #412 in downtown DC, very big boxes that were designed for selling categories of merchandise that no longer exist to sell profitably.

Other Borders news, I did see a big red table at the Columbus Circle store that will be the home of their AreaE space for selling e-book readers in a Borders the same way B&N has been devoting space to the Nook. I'm curious to see how that will go.

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