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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, July 18, 2011

Running on empty

There's a custom in Jewish prayer to recite something called the "Mourner's Kaddish" at the end of every worship service. When I'm leading a service, there's an introductory reading I do to this. It's the last paragraph of John Crowley's Little, Big; my favorite non-client fantasy and in part because it leads up to this wonderful passage of loss, of feeling for better days and different times. And there aren't better words to provide as I begin what will perhaps be my final post about the Borders business, for today all of us who love books have to be in mourning:

From LITTLE BIG by John Crowley
One by one the bulbs burned out, like long lives come to their expected ends. Then there was a dark house, made once of time, made now of weather, and harder to find; impossible to find and not even as easy to dream of as when it was alight. Stories last longer; but only by becoming only stories. It was anyway all a long time ago; the world, we know now, is as it is and not different; if there was ever a time when there were passages, doors, the borders open and many crossing, that time is not now. The world is older than it was. Even the weather isn’t as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were.

And let me make very clear, you can love Borders or hate it, you can rue the day they came in to your neighborhood in 1994 and helped to kill some local independent store, you can say you liked Barnes & Noble better, or that the staff at your local Borders were rude, or they never seemed very nice when you wanted to arrange a signing. You can do all of that. But if you love books, if you care about the power of the written word, of the ability for a writer to tell stories, and for those stories to move people and give meaning to the lives of others, if you care about any of that you can't be happy today. This is the saddest day for the book business that any of us have ever seen, and let us only hope that we can still say the same 25 years from today.

There are millions of people who now don't have a good, convenient, physical place to buy and explore books, unless you think a computer screen counts. And I mean that. I don't agree with everyone Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith say about agents, I don't remotely like they'll have an extra hour to drive to visit a good bookstore. There are millions of people living in Manhattan, many millions more working there on a weekday, and we're about to revert back to before Sept. 5 1995 when Borders opened at the World Trade Center -- only worse because before then there were at least a handful of indies on the island with decent and wide selections co-existing with B&N, and now you can't look at the sf section of Posman Books in Grand Central and think this is a place you want to go for your book shopping needs. So for all the rest of us, our book selection is now only and solely what Barnes & Noble decrees it to be. And I've got news for you, if you think publishers have been spending the past several months doing detailed analysis of their Borders sales and finding the 1% or 2% of their titles that were selling well at Borders alone and are now going to give those the extra TLC to get B&N to share the love -- well, the idea's good for a laugh. There are authors who no longer have a store to sell some or all of their books.

And yet I can't be as sad as I feel I should be.

I tried awfully hard when I visited the Peabody MA store in February. It was that brief window between the bankruptcy filing and the start of the liquidation sales for the first round of 200 closures, the sun that day was still shining even as the dark clouds gathered and the storm approached. It was a Borders store that time forgot, still with the old-fashioned woody shelving with the sf/f hardbacks and trades separate from the mass markets. I knew at one level that I could have shopped those same shelves twelve or fifteen years before. But I couldn't really get "up" for that experience.

That's the thing, once upon a time it had been fun to enter a Borders, good or bad not to know what you'd find selection wise on the shelves, to roam some weird diagonal aisles, to look at the different things that store had up at the front that other stores wouldn't, to peek into the mass market overstock shelves and find some singleton copy of a book that I could rescue and put out where customers could see and buy it and have some real sense of accomplishment, or climb the ladder if nobody was looking to rescue something from the overstock there.

But the stores didn't have personality any more. If they did, it was the personality of a ghost town, of walking in to the Plano TX stores or Preston Road stores in April 2010 and feeling the cobwebs rolling along down the aisles of these large empty boxes without merchandise enough or customers enough to sustain.

And on the other side of the ledger, there's supposed to be some comfort in finally reaching the end of a death that was long in coming. None of that here. Around 11,000 people that will be out of work. The authors who don't have an outlet for their books. The readers who don't have a bookstore to explore. There's pain, there's sadness, there's misery, all around. There's no sense of relief.

But for a few minutes, let me find a tear or two for the pensieve, and let me try and find those good memories of times gone by:

First walking into the original Ann Arbor Borders some twenty years ago, looking at more books than I'd ever looked at before in amazing and wide and stunningly broad profusion, that first purchase of Ben Bova's Exiles Trilogy. And then the hours spent exploring those shelves during my college years.

That happy moment when I "broke the code" and realized what the numbers on the buff inventory punchcards meant and knew I could now browse the shelves with entire new layers of meaning.

All those visits to DC, visiting Borders by Ride-On and Metro and by foot, doing all those things I mentioned above that I'd love to do at Borders, in an area where almost all the bookstores really were above average. The hustle and bustle of 18th and L during lunch hour, of White Flint on a Saturday night, of watching Germantown sprout from the corn fields to become a hugely important location for my clients.

Walking in the first time to the store in Columbia, MD or Gresham, OR or Milpitas, Mission Viejo, Torrance CA or State St. or Fairview Heights IL or South Bay and Mission Viejo or Fairfax and Bailey's Crossroads, VA, Redmond WA, and realizing you'd just walked in to one of the best bookstores around, the places that were getting in 24 copies of some new paperback that you'd have sworn there wasn't a store getting more than 12 of them, and that would sell through all two dozen in no time flat.

The first visit to the first Borders that was actually close to where I was living as an adult on Park Ave., finding a bookstore for the first time that had 100ish books I'd sold on its shelves.

The birthdays I'd spend taking the train out to Long Island. Really. There were many many years I'd quite happily spend doing the great Long Island bookstore tour.

Professionally, going to Newark DE or to Bailey's Crossroads VA to see clients signing at those big special stores for dozens and later hundreds of people.

The thing is, in a way I wish Borders had died unexpectedly, that these happy memories were fresh in my mind and not dependent on tears in the pensieve, but it's all so interconnected, so related, so entirely unaccidental that these stores will soon be no more.

The bulbs will burn out, or be turned off by Hilco and Gordon Brothers, on some Sunday in mid September.

The end was expected.

The stories, now only stories.

The borders open, and many crossing. That time is not now.

As once upon a time, they were.


Elizabeth Moon said...

Yes...very sad here. I too remember the early Borders--the shuttling back and forth between an independent store (loyalty) and a Borders (adventure, opportunity, the suddenly larger landscape.) Having two big competing chains certainly gave writers the illusion of security for awhile there. Having a Borders and a B&N within 10 minutes' drive of each other meant double pleasure since (as you mentioned) the stock wasn't exactly the same. I bought a lot of books at my favorite Borders, and a lot of CDs too.

I still don't understand how Borders management could be stupid enough to choose the wrong direction over and over. Granted I couldn't run a business like that...aren't big company execs supposed to have some basic competencies? And I feel great sadness for the people who will lose their jobs and come into an employment market just about as bad as it can be. With few exceptions, the folks at my favorite Borders were friendly, helpful, often enthusiastic, and good to the writers in this area.

Malnurtured Snay said...

When I first moved to DC, I knew I'd need a p/t job to make my living situation work, and I got a job at that Borders at 18th & L - worked there for nearly 3 years, left right after liquidation started, and still miss it.

Steve Diamond said...

Let's just say I'm not surprised by the continued stupidity of the Borders management. Remember once upon a time, Joshua, when I took care of that Waldens in Provo? Even then the writing was on the wall for those people who were willing to look. Upper management punished stores for catering to local favorites and local clientele. They refused to authorize the ordering of additional copies of novels that we could hand-sell with zero effort. Remember those signings for Brandon that sold 100s o copies (before he was huge)? Yeah, they docked us on audits for having too many of them in stock.

Really it all comes down to a mentality of skipping over dollars to save pennies. In the first round of closures many of my good friends lost their jobs...only they weren't told about it until the Wall Street Journal published the article with the list of stores closing. Again, that is the type of mentality the booksellers saw as far back in 2005 & 2006 with the idiotic decisions being passed down making it harder for stores to support their customers.

Everywhere I look I see "Well, the ebook market really put us out of business." Really? Way to point the finger and shovel the blame away from yourself. Good job Borders, you cost over 11,000 people their jobs, and made it even harder for a person to casually go browse in a bookstore.

Brian Niemeier said...

Mr. Bilmes;

Your anecdote about reciting that passage from Little, Big before the Kaddish really resonated with me. Coming from a theology background, I was really struck by how well Crowley's lament dovetails with the prayer.

One may be tempted to think that prefacing a post about the demise of Borders with a reference to such an august and venerable prayer is crass, but I believe that the world is essentially good, and so are humanity's honest efforts to pursue the arts and make a decent living in it. The potentially catastrophic upheavals in the book industry that the closing of Borders heralds merit our prayers, especially for the 11,000 unemployed.