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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.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Sole Survivor

When I first started going to the Washington, DC area on a regular basis in 1993/94, (and I've been at least once a year and often twice or more during the 15 years since, often on a long weekend visiting 30 or more bookstores).  the DC area was a major, major market for B. Dalton.  Union Station, Shops @ National in downtown, a Scribner in the Fashion Center mall, 2 in Crystal City, one in the Springfield Mall, the Montgomery Mall, the Ballston Commons, the Chevy Chase Pavilion, 18th & K St., Lake Forest, and more.  Within another week or two, not a single one of those original B. Dalton locations will remain.  The sole surviving Dalton outlet will be in Union Station, and that store wasn't there in 1993.  The current light-filled large space is a kind of Cadillac of B. Dalton stores that replaced a very very small shoebox in the center of the mall. 

The last of those Dalton locations from 1993 to close its doors is the Ballston Commons location, which is having a going out of business sale at the moment.  

Its indicative of the changes in the shopping landscape, both in general and for books in particular, during the past 15 years.

In 1993 the Ballston Commons was a pretty solid mall.  Over those 15 years, like a lot of malls, its gone downhill.  In 2009, it almost seems as if there are only 2 kinds of shopping mall left, the upscale thriving one that's ritzy enough for an Apple Store, and the decaying kind where the major chains have long since decamped in favor of tawdry clothing retailers and 99 cent stores.  How did these things happen?  Ballston Commons is at one end of the very walkable Clarendon corridor in Arlington, VA surrounded by office buildings and hotels and apartments for rich DC types.  The mall has a Panera that must get some upscale lunch trade.  But... the Regal Cinemas in the mall is more easily entered via the parking garage than by walking in from the street, which doesn't help the stores in the mall.  The same probably for the ice-skating rink.  Two miles away you've got more upscale new shopping in Clarendon and a ritzy outdoor promenade mall that does have an Apple Store and a B&N superstore.  It's hard to blame the B. Dalton for not thriving as its surroundings in the mall got worse and worse and worse.

Sadly, the Lake Forest mall which once had 3 bookstores, a Dalton, a Doubleday and a Walden, is also going downhill, as is the Springfield Mall that used to have both a Dalton and a Walden.  Each mall still has a Walden in it, but the decaying surroundings of each mall don't bode well for whether either of those can long survive.

When I first visited these malls 10 or 15 years ago, there was no hint of what was to come.  I couldn't have told you then that these malls would be dead while the Montgomery Mall and While Flint are not.

Besides that major change in the overall shopping environment, with malls giving way to power centers and lifestyle centers and whatever, there's also the superstore revolution.

In 1993, the superstore era was still in its infancy.  Borders was opening stores with double-digit store #s, #85 across the street from the Fashion Center and #50 a block from the 18th & K Dalton.  B&N was only just starting to emphasize the B&N superstores over the Dalton/Doubleday/Scribner locations they had purchased in the late 1980s.

And so it goes...

Are we now on the cusp of another retail revolution as even these superstores start to lose out to e-books?

As the years went by, I would go to the bigger B. Dalton in Crystal City and check if the smaller one was still there before walking to the far end of the mall.  I kept expecting the Ballston Commons store to close, and in fact thought it was going to do so a year ago because its shelves started to look depleted.  The Montgomery Mall store was having its Last Days sale 2 years ago when I visited with Brandon Sanderson.  One by one by one they've gone.  It was so exciting when I was in high school to have a B. Dalton open in the Orange Plaza Mall, and Dalton was always very good to sf/fantasy and maybe even more so than Walden in its heyday.  The Orange Plaza Mall store long closed, that mall redeveloped, the Lariats in the newer Galleria at Crystal Run was sold to Waldenbooks, and then the Waldenbooks closed in favor of a Borders location in the mall.  Drip by drip you hardly notice the changes, but now that the last of the B. Dalton that existed in DC in 1993 is going going and almost gone, you notice how the world has changed.

Many other Dalton locations appear to be closing to start the New Year, including one in the Bristol Mall  in Virginia, and in the Foothills Mall in Colorado, the Embarcadero in San Francisco, at the Parmatown Mall in the Cleveland area, one in the State College area of PA if I can tell right from Twitter and this blog post, the one in downtown LA that I walked by on my LA trip in September,  and several others like Alton Square in Illinois  (which also lost its Waldenbooks in 2008, going from 2 bookstores to 0) closed in spring 2008.  And probably more; in the DC area nobody notices or cares when a Dalton goes bye-bye in a decaying shopping mall and you can Google away without finding articles on all of them.


Mindy Klasky said...

I live a block away from the Ballston store, and I've watched its fire sale with great sadness. (The store was never great, but it was convenient, and I've dropped hundreds of dollars there over the years.)

There seems to be a lot of internal-to-the-chain strife. The B. Dalton put up signs that said, "Visit our Clarendon B&N Store." When I was in the B&N Store last week, I mentioned the signs, and they were snidely surprised - apparently there's been bad blood between them for long enough that the B&N staff said they expected the Dalton staff to recommend the Bailey's Borders instead!


The Brillig Blogger said...

Well, it is much easier to travel by foot or by Metro from the Ballston Commons to the Barnes & Noble. I'd visit Bailey's XRoads more often if it wasn't such a pain in the neck to get to, but without a car the "best" route is to take Amtrak to DC, Metro to Pentagon City, the #16 bus down Columbia Pike, and then it's around a half mile walk from where most of the #16s turn back. Not so bad going out during rush hour if I have a client signing there, but to head back that way at 9:00 a night when the #16 isn't running as often...

And of course 15 years ago Bailey's XRoads was the best Borders in the DC area for sf/fantasy. It's still very good, but over the years the stores closer in have tended to decline some while the stores further out (Fairfax, Germantown) have picked up.

But now that I can't stop at the Gaithersburg Borders on the way to the nice one in Germantown, I may end up going to Bailey's more often, because it's less of a schlep to head from Pentagon City to there than from the Borders/B&N in Rockville all the way out to Gaithersburg. Unless I can time the I-270 express bus.

Mindy Klasky said...

I've never learned the bus routes around here (I've read your travels on them with a bit of amazement!), but I do almost all of my travel by Metro.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Bailey's Borders - my husband and I went there on our first date, and that's where he proposed to me. As you note, though, the F&SF stock has been reduced over the years... (and the fluffy toy stock has increased dramatically!)