The Closing of the American Bookstore
By Dan Gregory
The recent closing of two important American bookstores, Serendipity Books in Berkeley and the original Borders Books in Ann Arbor, has provided quite a bit of fodder for “doom and gloom” observations about the future of the bookstore in general. Much of what has been written about Borders has centered on the rise of ebooks. And a recent post at The New York Times website tried to tie the closing of Serendipity Books to ebooks. Some of this is on target, and some of this is nonsense.
I know a decent amount about the antiquarian book business – for the past 15 years I’ve been the general manager at one of the largest such businesses in the U.S. I know something about Borders too – I worked for them for six years and managed one of their early stores prior to entering the antiquarian side of the book trade. And I know a bit about Serendipity and its legendary owner, Peter Howard (though admittedly far less than many others).
First, the easy part. Serendipity did not shut down because of the rise of ebooks or some failure by bookstores to adapt to them, or to adapt to Amazon.com, or to adapt to Internet bookselling in general. Serendipity shut down because people don’t live forever. They age, and eventually they die. Regrettably, it’s even on my to-do list. Peter Howard owned and operated a large shop with a large inventory, and employed a staff. But Serendipity Books was Peter Howard. He didn’t make a provision for a successor to carry on the business. This was probably, like many of his decisions, a smart one. In his particular case (and in the case of many independent and antiquarian bookstores), it’s unlikely anyone else could have stepped into his role and kept the shop operating in anything like the same fashion for any length of time.
Serendipity had an enormous inventory, and certainly many of its books could be considered used books. The sale of used books, like the sale of new books, is threatened by new options to readers, particularly ebooks. But Peter Howard was an antiquarian bookseller. I’m fairly certain most of Serendipity’s bottom line was fed by his astute buying and selling of antiquarian books (books valued as objects), rather than used books (books as disposable vessels valued for their content). If Peter had lived another ten years, would Serendipity have stayed open another ten years? Yes. The closing of Serendipity had absolutely nothing to do with ebooks, and little to do with the Internet in general. It had to do with Peter’s simple mortality.
Before I move on to Borders, I should mention that Peter Howard was not just any antiquarian bookseller. Among other things, he was a past President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA). Beyond that, his influence on the antiquarian book trade was enormous. So much so that The New York Times should actually be embarrassed that they failed to run his obituary when they routinely profile the deaths of minor figures and semi-celebrities whose contributions to their own fields paled in comparison to what Peter contributed to the modern trade of antiquarian bookselling. Not only did he form or broker many important book collections, but his nurturing of others entering the trade for roughly the past half century was without parallel. A “family tree” of dealers whose careers, inventory, or style of bookselling were influenced directly or indirectly by Peter would include a great many other notables in the trade. In his day, the legendary bookseller A.W.S. Rosenbach may have been more famous, and a few booksellers of today can still trace a lineage of apprenticeship and influence back to Rosenbach through his assistants. But for the past four decades, in terms of the number of other dealers who routinely bought from Peter, or were mentored by him, or molded their philosophy of their inventories based on his own, Peter Howard was probably no less influential in shaping the American antiquarian book trade. Some small measure of his influence can be gleaned from the testimonies of the booksellers who participated in A Wake for the Still Alive, organized by Stephen Gertz and posted on his blog and elsewhere. Personally, I have little to add about Peter as a person – I didn’t know him well at all and was generally afraid to talk to him when I saw him in person. I’d been told through the grapevine that he actually knew who I was, and the fact that I was somewhere on his radar is a source of some personal pride. But I’ve always loved bookstores, and admired the few people out there who could create a genuinely great bookstore.
Now, regarding the closing of Borders, which is actually a related topic. How does one feel when an elderly and beloved relative who has long been suffering from dementia finally passes away? Sad, but also somewhat relieved. The Borders that closed its doors a few weeks ago was not the company built by Tom Borders, Louis Borders, and most importantly, Joe Gable, the long-time manager of the Ann Arbor store whose drive to create “the best bookstore in America” was, I was often told by the store cognoscenti, as or more influential than the contributions of the two brothers. My personal assessment of Borders is filtered through a prism of my personal experience working there for six years. When I joined the company in late 1990, it was to help open the first Borders “superstore.” It was their 11th store, but the first in a large city (Philadelphia). It was their first store designed with a coffee bar and many chairs, benches, and open spaces. I’m not sure if it was their first thus, but it carried over 125,000 titles. Not 125,000 books, but rather 125,000 different books. At the time, Barnes and Noble and all other chain bookstores never carried more than a very small fraction of this. If you found a chain bookstore with a fifth of this inventory, you had stumbled upon something special. At the time there were, by common consensus among book lovers, a few truly great independent bookstores around the country. This small list included the original Ann Arbor Borders, Denver’s The Tattered Cover, Seattle’s Eliot Bay, and Portland’s Powells. Borders Philadelphia was an attempt to bottle what made those stores great and recreate it in many locations and markets. It’s probably no accident that all those legendary independents got their start in the early 1970s – likely the cultural climate in the United States was a common catalyst. When it opened, the party line that came down from the main office was that each store served a unique community, and each store was to be unique. It was not to be a chain, but rather a collection of affiliated, “independent” stores sharing common resources. I kid you not.
Borders had also made itself a cool place to work, and the people who applied (and they were legion) were usually smart, interesting people. The employees got very generous discounts on top of a book-buying stipend, plus profit sharing. Hmm. Borders or a real job? Borders or a real job? Uh, Borders. People actually envied us for working there. Among the floor staff at the Philadelphia store when it opened were several Ivy League alumni, people with advanced degrees, published authors, the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and most importantly my future wife. The art department was shelved by a guy who had a Ph.D., in art history. The special orders clerk was allegedly the most proficient writer of palindromes in the English language. The information desk wasn’t just for finding out where we shelved a book. Like a reference library, and pre-Google, the information desk was for finding out anything. Between the Covers employs three former Borders employees.
Perhaps the idea that there could be more than a few markets in the country that could genuinely support such a large store, with such a large inventory, was a flawed model. Perhaps the problem was that as the company grew, it looked for and found people who had experience managing large companies, but little or no experience selling books. They referred to books as “product.” They would have been equally happy to be presidents, vice presidents, or regional managers of companies that sold shoelaces or fluorescent light bulb fixtures. Don’t get me wrong, the world needs shoelaces and fluorescent light bulb fixtures. But if you run a book company, it helps if you genuinely love books and bookstores. These folks did not. Joe Gable called them “the grocery guys.”
There’s a trick to having over 125,000 different titles in your inventory. The trick is, you can’t expect them all to sell in six months. In fact, you can’t expect them all to sell, ever. You have to think of some of them as wall decor for intelligent people. That doesn’t mean filling a bookstore with loads of books indiscriminately. It means having the faith that some books are worthy of existence, worthy of space on a bookshelf, even if the right buyer hasn’t yet come along. And you have to have faith in your customers to surprise you, to from time to time discover and buy worthy books. You have to have faith in your staff to help facilitate those discoveries.
Once the company was sold to Kmart, and certainly by the time it went public and had to please all those shareholders, it became clear to those of us on the sales floors that there would no longer be any patience for titles that weren’t pulling their own weight. Kmart also owned Waldenbooks, a chain that never tried to be the best bookstore in the world, and rather than making the Waldenbooks stores more like the Borders stores, instead the reverse happened (after an influx of Waldenbooks management into the upper echelon of the Borders hierarchy). Starting shortly after the sale to Kmart, like some nefarious book-eugenics program, we received huge pull lists of “dead wood” – books that hadn’t sold in six months were rounded up and shipped off somewhere, never to be heard from again. At first the empty space was filled up with multiple copies of more popular titles. Eventually, after I left the company, the space was increasingly filled with things for sale other than books. Who doesn’t love music? Who doesn’t love movies? Who doesn’t love bookends and all the attractive knick-knacks that began to fill up the space that once had been filled with books? There were many staff members, that is to say booksellers, who questioned the diversification, but the company was on a quest to be a vendor of all media.
Borders’ problems with the Internet are well-documented elsewhere. I will just add that in 1995 I was in Ann Arbor for training as a store manager, and I asked to see the offices where all the company’s hardware and software development worked. When I got there they told me that I was the only store manager, ever, who had asked to see the facility. Didn’t I feel special? But what I particularly remember from that visit was a conversation I had with the head of programming about this new fangled thing called the Internet. He said, “Have you seen the new website called Amazon?” I had. “We’re going to build something kind of like that, but a whole lot better.” Yeah, how’d you make out with that one? This guy was no dunce – at that point in time Borders had the potential to do things that Amazon could not. In the aggregate Borders had physical copies of hundreds of thousands of titles, and could have fulfilled on-line orders directly from its own existing inventory. But in 1995 the company had more pressing concerns, namely Barnes & Noble.
In later years I would often hear consumers say they saw little difference between the two companies, or even that they preferred B&N to Borders. In the early 1990s, there was no comparison between Borders stores and B&N stores. Nor, at that time, was there any comparison between their staffs. I know because when I went into B&N I’d see the people I had declined to hire for Borders. B&N, which as a company had always been managed better, started to copy the basics of the Borders format and open multiple stores in each Borders market. Borders would then open multiple stores, now very much merely chain stores devoid of interesting inventory (the pretense of affiliated “independent” stores had long-vanished), and suddenly there was a bookstore arms race with mediocre stores as the ammunition.
Borders was really doomed from the start because, in the long run, its ancestry as a great individual, independent store was a weakness. The company could never reconcile the free-spirited intellectual aspirations of the individual stores (initially staffed by a diaspora of Ann Arbor employees and their disciples) with the constantly shifting corporate mandates of revolving grocery guys. B&N had consistent leaders who, on the other hand, knew exactly what kind of a company they wanted and never aspired for each individual store to be unique. Nor did they aspire for any of their stores, even the physically largest of them, to be the best bookstore in the country. They never had to pull scores of thousands of interesting and scholarly, but slow-selling titles from the shelves in massive purges, because B&N would have never bought them to begin with. That’s no way to run a large bookstore chain, and they knew it.
Ultimately the Ann Arbor store closed because it was tied, ball and chain, to a company which grew around it but devolved away from it. I suspect if it had remained an independent, like The Tattered Cover or Elliot Bay, it would still be in operation, as they are. But that’s a “what if” that we’ll never know.
How does the book world survive these back-to-back closings of Serendipity and the original Borders? Is this the end of the book as we know it? Hardly. The book as a physical object will continue to be appreciated and treasured. Did people stop collecting manuscripts when printing came along? Of course not. If anything, the rising popularity of ebooks makes notable and beautifully printed physical books all the more appealing.
Will we see the end of the open bookshop? Not so long as there are noteworthy physical copies of books to sell and geographical areas where the intelligence is high enough and the rent low enough. Our open shop in Delaware,The Bookshop in Old New Castle, is one. Every year at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar I meet many booksellers who either have or intend to open a shop.
And finally, the legacy of the work of Peter Howard and Joe Gable lives on in the booksellers they inspired. It has been said that today’s individual bookseller websites are the modern version of open shops of yesteryear. Certainly our own website was greatly influenced by Serendipity and the original Borders, as I detail in a separate essay. Is this the end of the American bookstore? Nothing like. Just the coincidental closing of two great individual, independent stores through entirely different circumstances. They live on, vigorously, in the memory of all who appreciated them. Owning and operating a bookstore has NEVER been an easy way to make a living. But booksellers are an obstinate and romantic lot. From their corps arise, from time to time, people with enough business sense to actually support their Quixotic dreams. Serendipity and Borders have closed, but independent bookstores like them will always be around.
The article was published in the Between the Covers Blog. It is presented here by permission of the author. The pictures show: Peter Howard in the 1990s. Dan Gregory at Borders Philadelphia in 1991. The "long-hair / open-safe" policy may have contributed to the company's demise. Serendipity's catalog 1 from 1963.