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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.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Good Old Days

Here's a blog post on Edward Champion's blog that was re-tweeted by Tobias Buckell last night, regarding event cancellations at Borders. This isn't exactly news, who's going to rush to send 200 copies to a bookstore for an event when the bookstore has already announced you won't be paid. Here's a link to a NY Times Media Decoder blog post with a few small items, that Borders suggested publishers obtain joint legal counsel to represent in discussions over their bills, and that some publishers weren't thrilled with the turnaround plan being discussed at this week's meetings. Again, not entirely news.

I want to remember the Borders that was.

It was 1981 or 1982 that I first stepped into the original and then only Borders on State Street in Ann Arbor. My memory says it had to have been '81, but the first book I purchased at Borders was The Exiles Trilogy by Ben Bova which did not come out until '82, maybe we went there in '81 but I didn't buy a book.

What an amazing store. It was on two main levels with like four littler levels, and it was filled with more book than I think I'd ever seen in a bookstore ever. The science fiction section just went on, and on, and on, and on, and on. It was hard to believe if there was an sf book in existence that it wasn't in that section. The front of the store looked a lot like the front of the store of any Borders for the next 15 or 20 years, you had face outs of new hardcovers in bays, and the new hardcover and paperback tables. Fiction was on a raised area against the left wall when you walked in, children's was in the back, there was a big upstairs, it was amazing. As I've discussed the inventory system for then was kind of beyond state of the art. Each book had a buff punchcard that was taken at purchase to run through a scanner, the front info desk had huge computer-fold printouts updated regularly by author, title, maybe even subject. What a store!

It was a couple years in to my college days in Ann Arbor that I figured out the buff cards had # of books in an order and day of order in them, so even before I was in publishing I was happily looking at the cards to see how many copies were being ordered of this book vs. that book and how early and often the reorders were coming in. There were lots of books being sold, and lots and lots of reorder, and there were copies ordered in of really pretty much everything.

Think of any good indie that people will talk about today, whether it's Politics and Prose or Tattered Cover or anything. The original Borders store was well beyond in any and every way what your favorite bookstore was in your fondest imaginings of it.

When Borders started to expand nationally, the thing I can't say enough about Borders was that each new store opening wherever it was in the country was like bringing the experience of that original Ann Arbor store to your front door. It was for 1988 or 1992 something like the experience of going on to Amazon for the first time and realizing you could actually get any book you ever dreamed of ever wanting.

The fixtures were and to this day are better at Borders than at B&N. I love the new hardcover table 8 times better than the Octagon at Barnes & Noble. The flat new paperback table at Borders was an amazing piece of furniture that sold many many books, always perched very near the front of the store (FOS). It was even improved down the line with the addition of the "tree" in the middle, as the company called the high-rise extension of their flat table. Each and every Borders had its bays of new fiction and new non-fiction, new this and new that. And if you were in an area like DC that had three or five Borders you could get to in one day, it was like walking into five different stores because all those new fixtures were filled with books that were filled by people at that store.

Not a random process. You'd be more likely to fill the FOS with books where you'd gotten seven copies than two copies. Hence, even as late as 2002 you could still have a special experience walking into the Borders that was right for you. I could go to the Borders in Milpitas, just outside of San Jose and near the Cisco campus, and the front tables were just full of sf/fantasy titles, because that store could sell tons of sf/fantasy, so the orders of new books in those categories were of course higher than in other categories, so of course those books migrated to the front of the store like moths to light. I could walk in the front door, look at that front table, and know I was in for a treat. And on that trip, I visited something like a dozen new to me Borders, and it was never boring. I didn't like all the stores equally, Fremont was really bad for sf/fantasy. But Milpitas was wonderful. The Emeryville store was marvelous to visit.

Opening day of a new Borders, they had people from around the country who were part of sort teams that came in to help train and to unpack the boxes. The stores would be full of happy and eager customers, you could be at a store in Long Island and talk to somebody from Cincinnati and Philadelphia who had come in for the sort, you could get a sense of the buyer expectations for that particular store by looking at what there was more of or less of.

I could curl up in a Borders for a good 45 minutes and feel I was rushing it. You had the barcoded inventory stickers instead of buff punch cards, you could see how many copies were ordered. In the sf/fantasy or mystery sections, with the excess books shelved in that row right there behind, you'd literally want to sit down on the floor to go hunting for anything in the back shelf that wasn't in the front. I was always happy on Opening Day when I'd find a book by a client that had been put in the wrong section, and any day to find a singleton in back that I could make room for in front. I could look at the FOS bays for that store and find a book I hadn't even known might look interesting that was at that store. With the weird strange diagonal lines the stores had you could kind of browse your way down the history section and suddenly find yourself at the end of the row in a different section. I liked that.

You couldn't get these experiences at a Barnes & Noble. You still can't, you never could, you never will. The octagon isn't as nice as the rectangular new hc table at Borders, the new mass market tower isn't as nice as the Borders table, B&N was always walk in the door and find the bestseller bays and all the same books at all the same stores. Does anyone ever curl up in a science fiction section at a B&N the way I would curl up with the section at a Borders? A B&N opened, and I had a decent chance at predicting within a few titles just how many titles from JABberwocky would be on the shelf, and maybe even which ones.

I want to make very clear, none of this is remembering it all through rose-colored glasses. For better or worse, my first time through the front door of a new to me Borders, I had no idea what to expect. Was it a good sf store or bad sf store? Was I four weeks out from the last reorder cycle for Ace or Baen and the Simon Green or Elizabeth Moon section was depleted, or were the shelves full of 12 new titles just in from a reorder cycle? The odd thing is that Costco tries to sell the treasure hunt aspect of the stores that Borders kind of had without really wanting.

The issues that drove Borders out of business aren't unique to Borders. You can read an article from the NY Times in October that discusses how Macys has tried to find the right balance in their stores between localized inventory and chain-wide buying.

The frustrating thing at Borders is that so many people for so many years could fail to notice that they weren't striking the right balance. Needed: square table at FOS that has the big new books of the week, all with publishers paying to put them there. Not needed: the entire FOS at Borders changed from being entirely local to being almost entirely paid publisher placement. Needed: Slightly better D/E level inventory for brand consistency. Not needed: reduce title counts of $7.99 mass markets that cost hardly anything to keep on shelf so that your A/A+ level stores are diminished.

My purpose here is to celebrate what was best about Borders. B&N offered a corporate consistency to the book-buying public, maybe it's not right to call them like McDonalds, we should say they were the In 'n' Out Burger because there's a measure of real quality to the B&N product. Alas, the best of Borders wasn't that, they never became that, they lost all that they once were. But I want to make abundantly clear that the loss of Borders as we have come to know it is not a good thing.

And to name names: Jim Hines' Goblin books, Marjorie Kellogg's Dragon Quartet, Simon Green's Guards of Haven, the first Elizabeth Moon Serrano omnibus, Howison/Gelb's Dark Delicacies these are just a few JABberwocky titles that don't have enough retail presence outside of Borders to have an existence in print form after Borders.

1 comment:

Mori-neko said...

I will have to grant that my experiences with both Borders and B&N are a great deal more recent. I believe my first recollections of Borders come from after their 'take out the windy bits and make all the shelves straight' renovations. However, my impressions are almost entirely opposite from yours. The high school I went to is fairly near Santa Monica's 3rd St. Promenade, which had, at that point, both a B&N and a Borders. Of the two, B&N is always where I would wander in to when I had some time to wait, or simply wanted to browse. The Borders always felt vaguely faceless, the SF/F section was only a couple shelves, and while I would occasionally find something there that the B&N didn't have, there was never any place comfortable to sit. In contrast, the B&N two blocks away had a large SF/F section, lots of windows, and overstuffed armchairs scattered throughout the store.

Now, of course, both of those are different. The Borders has closed entirely, and the B&N has shrunk the SF/F section (it's still larger than Borders' had been, but not by much, anymore), and pulled out the armchairs in favor of wooden ones that no one really wants to sit in for any length. In fact, I don't know of any bookstore, chain or independent, that encourages curling up with a book to take it through its paces. Bookstores have, on the whole, become a great deal less inviting.