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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.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

the retail scene

Family business often brings me to the Hartford area, where the bookstores are longtime friends of a sort. 

First and foremost is the Borders in Farmington, store #55. Got to see it from when it was a construction site, when it was exciting to have a Borders move in during the dawn of the superstore era. It was the first of it's kind in the area, and it still does a decent business. And had a very decent selection of close to 90 non-Charlaine JABberwocky titles on the shelf. Like many Borders, not the business it did ten years ago. And like the Westwood store, which is of similar vintage, the box is too big. Back where the music used to be in the car rear corner, they have couches and chairs set up. But the space overhang isn't as bad as Westwood, the rent no doubt cheaper. I still like this store very much since it is big, full of endcaps and displays, lots and lots of books.  First in the wild sighting of Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers. 

Across the street, literally across the street, is a Barnes and Noble. It always seems dead. No customers. It had just over half the titles of the Borders, and some of those because they haven't sold in years but they're selling down to zero instead of returning to zero, so they just sit and sit and sit.  I cannot understand how this store stays in business. 

Just down the street is the Westfarms mall. In the days when malls had bookstores this had at least two, I a B Dalton and a Waldenbooks.  And the Corbins Corner strip mall across the street also had a Waldenbooks  And then several years ago and even a few years after the Corbins Corner store closed, Borders put a Walden/Borders Express back into the mall. It never seems to have any customers in it but must make some money because it still exists when 80-90% of the mall stores known to exist in the US have closed. Earlier in the year Borders put the mall stores on the same inventory system as the superstores, so now the books have inventory stickers which I can read. But how does the store make money?  Really cheap rent?? The landlord supports as a public service because rich people in West Hartford want a bookstore in their mall?

Once upon a time the Bishops Corner area of West Hartford on the other side of town had one of the earliest Barnes and Noble superstores, but that was one of the mistake stores from when they didn't know superstores had to be larger and more atmospheric than being larger versions of small bookstores. It closed years ago. And then BN decided to put a store in a new downtown shopping destination called Blue Back Square.  This is like many bookstores in rich suburban areas and doesn't sell much sf/ fantasy and also had around 50 non-Charlaine JABberwocky titles.  First in the wild sighting of Alcatraz vs the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson.  Downtown West Hartford has a small indie I don't even bother visiting since it has a very small sf/fantasy section that isn't well curated.

On the other side of Hartford in Manchester the Buckland Hills mall approach has a Borders, #60, from about the same era as Farmington. Both part of the KMart triplets era, Farmington still with a Sports Authority in same shopping center, Manchester with an Office Max next door that is now an Office Depot and a Sports Authority around the bend.  Atop the hill in the mall proper there used to be a Waldenbooks that doldrums lots of books from a very small space, until the mall gave a secondary anchor spot to Barnes and Noble.

That B&N is now one of five test stores for an educational games section that has taken over the music and movies area. All the Lego you could want, lots and lots of Lego.  It looks nice, I would even go to B&N over a Toys R Us to buy Duplos. It can't do worse than the shrinking music and movies section. Since these items are bigger than shiny disks the section doesn't need a separate security system and register and dedicated employee to keep shrink to a reasonable level, which could save upwards of $3M in personnel costs over the course of a year. It is more open to the rest of the store. Would maybe like e section even more if I were part of the target audience for educational games.  

The Borders always seemed dimly lit to me, and over the years started to look dingy. It was very late to being renovated three or four years ago, maybe they had a fifteen year lease from 1992 or 1993 and held off pending a renewal?  Add to that the overall woes at Borders and it is no surprise that business has slowed. It has gone from being a quietly respectably strong store to being more 40th percentile, if I had to guess. But to judge from the amount of the science fiction section in upstock (I climbed the ladder hoping nobody would notice to bring down 2 Trading in Danger, 3 Way of Kings, a Warded Man, a Poltergeist and a Moon Flights), this is one of the stronger sections for the store. Also, the store was always smaller and has a mid-range music and movies selection, so it doesn't have the empty space issues of Westwood or Farmington and other larger Borders boxes of this era.  Bottom line is that the Borders still has a larger selection of JABberwocky titles, around 80 vs 70, but the BN is new and shiny. But at least the Borders seems to have settled into a stable if smaller business, even if not the business of 10 years ago.  

Borders has been trying very hard to have a good holiday season. In stock guarantee, price guarantee, returns thru January 30. Lots of couponing including a Black Friday insert in 28 markets. Years past they had lists of books, DVDs and CDs at huge discount prices, this year you could an item of your choice at 50% off. Which is crazy, selling an item below cost, but at the same time less crazy than allowing people to buy 8 items at below cost and nonetheless more alluring because you get to choose. 

The list of Borders stores closing in coming days also includes downtown Portland OR (#65), Farmington Hills MI (#77) and Chestnut Hill MA (#17).

Portland was a major flagship downtown location which always struck me even several years ago as having not quite flagship sales, and I am sure was at the end of its lease and not worth renewing.  There is a wonderful Borders in Gresham in the Portland suburbs that did more business with I am sure less rent.  The flagship Powells is .6 miles from the Borders. Should downtown Portland have only one bookstore or is there an opportunity for Powells to open a satellite in another part of downtown or for another bookstore with a lower rent to make a go of it?

Chestnut Hill was one of the oldest Borders stores, maybe at one time a books only location that expanded into a neighboring space to add a music section. Like West Hartford in a rich suburban area that was absolutely a dead zone for sf/fantasy, an absolute absolute dead zone, and I am not sure how well it did in other areas. It is in a very tony mall. I have a feeling it had a decent rent from when it was first leased in the early 1990s and maybe not so decent a rent to renew in this upscale rich suburban mall.  So it will close. I kind of liked it once upon a time because Borders #17 did have a certain character to it, but over the years Borders spent lots of money to remodel the character out, Cheesecake Factory opened in downtown Boston, and not worth the schlep to travel out to a store that didn't sell any sf/fantasy. There is a BN down the street that also doesn't do much business in sf/f, so the people of Chestnut Hill will not starve for books.              

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