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.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Ten & Five Stores

For general impressions of the closing Borders see my last post here  This will start some store specifics.  I believe that Borders #10 at the White Flint Mall in Kensington/Rockville MD and Borders #50 on 18th and L St in downtown Washington DC were in their prime two of the best bookstores in the entire country. 

Store #10 was one of the first stores opened by the brothers Borders as they expanded across the US. It was the second Borders I ever visited, my late uncle Matthew dropping me off at the Bethesda Metro station with instructions on how to find my way there as I was heading home after from something or other. I loved it. It was exactly like the experience of visiting the original Borders, and I no longer had to go to Ann Arbor for it. I was upset they were not carrying Simon Green's Blue Moon Rising in it's original Roc edition. That store was in a small standalone retail building on Rockville Pike, subsequently filled with an Anthropologie and now vacant; the Borders proved so popular that it was no more than a few years before it left its books only building behind for an anchor location in White Flint across the street, with one of the hugest Borders signs you could see facing the Pike. And it was so popular there they even took over adjacent space for an even bigger selection. What a selection!  What a crowd on a Saturday night!  So many books sold, 30 copy initial order of Elizabeth Moon's Sporting Chance, if I recall.  I could easily and happily spend an hour or more there, looking at every end cap, reveling in the crowds, checking the behind stock of the sf section. 

The 18th and L store opened a bit later, probably after the K-Mart purchase of Borders. It was in the basement levels of a DC office building. It was hard to appreciate just how big the store was because it was on two levels and the lower was in an L shape with the walled off music and movies section taking the lower part of the L so you didn't know about the foot of the L if you didn't head in. It's Saturday night was lunch hour. Every lunch hour. If you could get a book on the new mass market table to be admired by the lunchtime throngs you could sell ten copies in a week easy. I tried hard over the years to fill an empty slot on that table, or if the table was low to bring up copies from the sf section downstairs. 

As Borders did in those days, the front of store at each was full of facings and tables that reflected the character of the store. The downtown store would be big on politics, and there were books displayed in quantity there that you didn't see elsewhere.  The White Flint store would long retain some of the tweedier university town aspects from being one of the first stores out of Ann Arbor. Both easily carried over 100,000 book titles, well over. The downtown store was never as strong in horror, both sold sf/f in such large quantities.

Both stores, when I might commonly expect to see 55 or 60 JABberwocky titles in a superstore, I could go here and find 80 or 90. White Flint may have been one ofmthe first stores where I found 100 titles when it wasn't a fully stocked opening day. 

So what happened?  

The downtown store didn't face direct competition, but it's sales were clearly slowing because of environmental conditions. Not just the ebook. The first superstores tended to open up in core urban or suburban locations. As the population migrated out and more stores opened in the suburbs, the original core stores lost business. In DC right now the more outlying stores in Germantown and Columbia MD or Fairfax VA may be among the most profitable. 

But beyond that, Borders happened to Borders. A Barnes and Noble opens on Rockville Pike a mile up from the Borders. Not very happening at first. But over time, even though the Borders has a theoretically bigger selection the long lag time in replenishment will mean that you cannot actually find your book, as could the Borders quirk where a book that got shipped to the wrong store would be listed as received at the theoretical destination instead of the actual. 

Both stores were hurt by the cash crunch in 2008 when title counts were reduced chain wide. The presence of a rare find like a Hot Blood anthology could no longer make up for the missing 2nd Deathstalker novel that sold three weeks ago and still hadn't been reordered. 

The corporatizing of Borders hurt. These stores once had character, personalities distinct to their neighborhood, visibly so when you walked in the front door. As more and more of the front of the store was sold off to paid publisher placements, and as the stores themselves were renovated with the new hardcover facings taken away and/or becoming "FOS Bay 07" on the chain wide weekly displays, the titles that gave that character to the stores were forced into the section where if lucky maybe the store had an extra endcap. With the title count reductions in 2008, many of the books that gave character but sold eight copies a year over the entire chain were removed completely. 

And oh, those remodels. These are two of the stores that I saw in at least four incarnations. The original, the original with diagonal lines removed, the navigability/mixed hc-mm genre shelving, then the booting out of the music and movies, then the filling out of the space. At one point in time half the sf/f at White Flint was put in upstock, which didn't make things easy to find, so up the road to the BN the customers would go. In the final remodel at 18th and L, the old lettering Borders sign was taken down and replaced with a sign with the new logo. This offended me as a Borders purist. More to the point, while that new sign did give brand consistency it did not sell an extra piece of merchandise, and it cost money which Borders did not have. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I do not think Barnes and Noble has spent energy swapping out signs with it's original somewhat more ornery lettering, and even though I am not a BN purist, I still find this stores and smile when I walk in because I know the stores with the old lettering have more history behind them. 

And oh, those remodels!  Let me say it again. Every dime Borders spent on those remodels made the stores less interesting to me, less attractive, less fun to visit, had me spending less time in the store. That has always worked well enough for BN because the business has always been thus. Borders built it's business on a different kind of customer, and slowly replaced it with people wanting to use "40% off any one item" coupons. 

I last visited White Flint in December, and 18th and L just a two weeks ago. They were so much quieter than once upon a time they were. I was at 18th and L right about noontime, and it was busy-ish but not like the lunch hours of my recollection. 

That said, both stores were still selling decent quantity of books. Both had better selections, and better selected selections, than a typical BN. On some titles, White Flint could still outsell the BN a mile up the road. 

Why are they closing?  Too big. The White Flint store was over 40,000 square feet. When they took out music and movies, they had enough space left to put in a boxing ring and spectator seating. They did shuffle and move and fill out the space, but they were doing a nice business for a 27K store maybe even with steep rent, but there was no way they could ever do 40K sq ft of business. The 18 and L store was around 37K, same problem. 

Store #85 at Pentagon City has faded as much or more as either of these stores, but maybe three years back Borders was able to give back space to the landlord. That store remains open. 

Can you tell that I will miss these stores, not so much for their faded presents but very much as once upon a time they were. 

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