Follow awfulagent on Twitter

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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

One of the anniversaries of the many deaths of Borders

I should be reading a manuscript but it's late and I'm tired and it's not the right conditions for work reading.

So instead, let's reflect on one year of life after Borders. Technically I could do in September, but this week marks the real end, the week when the liquidation became official, when the theory of the Borders bookstore gave way to the going out of business sale.

And it still sucks.

To tackle some good news first, the end of Borders wasn't the end of publishing as we know it. I don't know of any publishing company that went under because they were left holding a bag with a hole in the bottom of it. At least not yet. I'm also not aware of any publisher with cash flow issues where our receivables get kind of long in the tooth that's had its circumstances improve over the past year.

But that's about the extent of the good news, that the Borders bankruptcy wasn't the start of some fancy game of dominoes where we could watch them all merrily go falling one after the other after the other.

So I should be happy, right. The business I'm in took one of the biggest hits it's faced in my quarter century in publishing and it's muddling along without disaster in its wake.


The same store sales figures at B&N have increased by a very small amount, considering the number of customers and book sales that were up for grab after the demise of Borders. There hasn't been any rush of bookstores to fill the vacuums or the bookselling deserts left behind in Borders' wake. Some of this is because a lot of the sales could move to e-books, which are much more opaque to track still than print book sales, so it could be that the sales haven't gone so much as gone behind a curtain. But I still don't think of this as good news. One of my biggest worries is that the outlets for selling print books will disappear faster than the appetite for print books.

I can't go to bookstores any more. I used to spend a huge chunk of my life visiting bookstores, and I loved doing it. I felt a little empty when Borders was around that life and business had gotten busier to where I wasn't able to spend as much time visiting bookstores as I'd liked. But it turns out that was because I could visit Borders. Even in its diminished struggling state, even after all the management missteps and the remodels and everything else Borders did to make their stores less enticing places to shop, Borders had better bookstores. A better curated selection. When I could go to a Barnes & Noble and play compare & contrast I could tolerate going to Barnes & Noble. When the only bookstore option I had was to go to a Barnes & Noble, I couldn't bare to do it. Especially because B&N hasn't even been B&N any more. Once upon a time it used to be that Borders were the more interesting and sometimes better and sometimes worse stores while B&N was the boring consistent chain that you could count on to have a core selection from store to store. Now, the difference between the good and the bad B&N is as extravagantly bad as it used to be at Borders, with bad stores having half the JABberwocky title count of good ones and not having core selections like the complete Lost Fleet series or the complete Nightside series. By and large, I just get depressed.

I still drag myself into a B&N every once in a while, maybe tomorrow I'll drag myself in to the one on 46th and 5th since I have to meet a friend a couple blocks away. But there isn't any joy to me in visiting bookstores. It's all just work now.

And there aren't choices. Most indies have crappy sf/fantasy sections and don't give me much joy. The only place where people can go and buy a book in an old fashioned bookstore is a depressing boring chain that doesn't even offer the benefits of consistency the way it once did.

I still think of Borders when I think of the world. When the Silver Line on the Washington Metro starts running in very late 2013, that will be the line that was going to allow me get to the Borders in Tysons Corner more often. If they ever build a streetcar line down Columbia Pike in suburban DC, that will be the streetcar line that would have made visits to the Borders in Baileys Crossroads much easier. When I head to Chicago for WorldCon, this will be the WorldCon that won't finally give me a chance to get down to the Borders on Beverly in the far South of Chicago. I don't see dead people, I see the ghostly apparitions of the Borders that were.

Based on the timing of the first round of liquidation sales, I knew that the most likely last week for Borders would be the week I was in St. Louis for Bouchercon, and that this would make it very difficult to be the last person, turning off the lights, in a Borders somewhere. This proved to be correct. The only Borders accessible by transit from St. Louis was already closed, the signs already taken down by the landlord. The idea of taking a car service out to the suburbs was a theoretical one, the actual closing time for a store on the last day of business was a moving target. One thing to take the car if you knew you could get there at 8pm and hang around until 9, another when nobody could really say if the store would close at 2pm or 5pm or 8pm.

This still depresses me.

Part of me says it's just as well. It would have been horribly depressing going to a Borders and seeing the closed off sections of the store, the last dregs of the liquidation sale, the people scrounging around the dregs for some final bargain at 90% off. It would have been awful and sad.

But when a loved one dies, by and large you still feel that urge to be at the bedside to give your loved one a proper send-off.

And like a loved one that died after a long illness, the best memories I have of Borders don't date back to the days closest to its death. They date back to the mid and late 1990s, the earliest years of this century. The Borders that was still good enough that I could spend a day in 2002 traipsing by BART and bus and foot to the Borders in San Ramon and the Borders in Pleasanton and the Borders in Fremont and the Borders in Emeryville and feel like that was a really really wonderful way to spend a day and see the world one Borders at a time. By 2011, if I did a day like that it was because that was the kind of thing I did, because it connected me to that day in 2002.

But yes, on balance, I wish I had been at the bedside when the lights went out.

As it was, though I hoped maybe it wouldn't be, I kind of knew that my last visit to a Borders the week before the very very end had all of the depressing aspects of being at the bedside without actually being there. It was a struggle to find in the depleted selection that book that might be the last book I actually purchased for pleasure at a Borders. The one good thing was that it was the closest bookstore to my hometown, at the successor mall to the one that once had a Book & Record store, and later a B. Dalton.

But it sucks, it totally totally sucks.

It's a year now since we knew there'd be no Borders, since it became apparent that the white knight to try and save some semblance of the chain wasn't going to materialize.

And it sucks.

There are two other posts that I could do some day. One is the optimistic one, where I can talk about how recent months are showing how e-books and the internet really can help people find an author in a better and nicer way than the old-fashioned bookstore and the old-fashioned review outlets. Take that, NY Times Book Review! Who needs to worry about all the newspaper book review sections that don't exist any more when we have iO9.

Then there's the depressing post, about the total market failure of indie bookstores that don't care, publishers that don't help them, and which I'm supposed to love because why? and love the publishers because why?

Maybe some day.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Harvard Square Theatre

There's no doubt that there's a stretch in 1980/81 that was the most formative in forming the film-loving part of my self.

May 1980, when The Empire Strikes Back opened, and we drove down to see it in 70mm on the huge screen of the RKO Stanley Warner Route 4 Paramus Quad.

Around that same time, that I saw The Shining.

December 1980, when I saw Altered States at the Loews Astor Plaza.

The summer of 1981, when I was on my own in Boston for several weeks.

So it's with extreme sadness that I read on Monday in the New York Times that the AMC Loews Harvard Square theatre has shuttered.

According to Cinema Treasures, the theatre opened in 1926 with 1700 seats. Who knows how many seats it had in 1981, and I'm not sure that the balcony was in use at that time, but it was still one massively mammoth theatre with one humongously huge screen, and it showed a different double feature every night. And you could buy a card for ten prepaid admissions for, if memory serves, $18. I got at least one of those.

The strange thing is that I have to confess, I can't really remember all that well what all movies I saw at the Harvard Square in the summer of 1981. I can tell you what first run theatres I went to that summer to see The Great Muppet Caper or Stripes or Escape from New York or For Your Eyes Only. I can tell you that the Orson Welles was running its neverending run of Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. There are a gazillion things I can remember about that summer, and running down a list of the 10 or 15 movies I must have seen at the Harvard Square just somehow doesn't make the cut. I know one of them was The Last Waltz, which I didn't care for. I think I saw The Shining again. I'm reasonably sure I took in a showing of 2001, but I wouldn't want to swear to it. But it was one of the first theatres I fell in love with, and one of the places where I fell in love with the movies.

Down the road a piece, the independent Harvard Square theatre was purchased by the local Sack movie chain, which became USA Theatres, which became part of Loews, which eventually got gobbled up by AMC, and the theatre died as the AMC Loews Harvard Square. It got chopped up over the years, the balcony was cut in two, then then downstairs was cut in three. The main entry to the theatre which fronted right on Harvard Square was turned into retail space, and the main entrance was the side door of the old lobby on a side street without any visible sign on Harvard Square that a movie theatre was in the neighborhood. There was little grandeur left, other than for having the grand stairs leading up to the balcony theatres. I ended up seeing only one movie at the theatre after 1981, so it's not like it's that big a difference to me if the theatre is there or not, I probably shouldn't waste a blog post on its demise.

But in the back of my mind, the knowledge that there was a theatre there, that the link to my past was there if I wanted or needed it, that I could look at the film times in the Boston Globe and think on what was, it means something to me.

As well, in the same way that the loss of Borders is a loss in part because of the book-buying deserts it leaves behind, places like downtown Boston or downtown St. Louis that don't have a good bookstore with wide selection, the loss of the Harvard Square is a loss to Harvard University. There's the Brattle Theatre, an arthouse/repertory theatre that still hangs on in Harvard Square. But there's no place to see Amazing Spider Man in Harvard Square. If you're a student at Harvard you've got a long walk ahead or a T ride to go see a movie. And that doesn't seem quite right to me. Who'd want to go to Harvard without the Harvard Square across the street?