Independent bookstores look to life after Borders

July 31, 2011|By Jay Hancock

Is the death of Borders a bell that tolls for the book trade? Or a business opportunity?

"In the long run, it's good for us," says Steve Spund, co-owner of Greetings & Readings, an independent bookseller in Hunt Valley. "It's always sad to see a store close. The book industry is certainly changing with the evolution of the e-book. But there is still a large number of people out there that like to hold a book in their hand. So I think the independents that are still around — it'll help them."

Maybe. Or maybe the only thing worse for local merchants than big-box rivals are big-box rivals that die because a whole industry is in grave jeopardy.

"In terms of the book market in general, it's in nobody's interest that Borders goes down," says Benn Ray, co-owner of Atomic Books in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood. "When they go into bankruptcy, they go into bankruptcy owing people money" — including publishers that may cut back on the lower-volume titles that Atomic carries, he added.

"There are repercussions that will come out of this that will be felt for the next several years," Ray said.

Borders was unable to find a buyer for its stores at any price. In May, Amazon announced that it now sells more e-books than printed books. Apple and Amazon are reported to be on track to sell more than 50 million Kindles and iPads for e-book readers this year. MIT media guru Nicholas Negroponte has predicted that the paper book will be dead by 2015.

But has any author ever autographed an e-book? (The "e-book signing" allowed on Barnes & Noble's Nook reader is indistinguishable from a PIN-pad step at Giant and doesn't count.)

Has anybody ever given an e-book as a gift? Has an e-book prompted a conversion? A revolution? Has an e-book, asked the Guardian newspaper a few years ago, ever made anybody cry?

I am required to use a hyphen for "e-book" as I type this. On the other hand, the Associated Press, whose stylebook The Baltimore Sun follows, recently promoted "email" from its neologism status by removing its hyphen.

Perhaps the Associated Press is perilously behind the times, as you might expect of an organization whose clients are print publishers. Or perhaps "e-book" still isn't popular or important enough to earn a place among respectable, unhyphenated nouns.

"You're still reading on a Kindle, but you're not 'reading,'" says Erin Matthews, who owns and runs Books With A Past, a used-book store in Glenwood in Howard County.

Her customers will say, "I read that on my Kindle," as if to acknowledge that it wasn't a genuine literary experience, she said, adding, "At least a quarter of my customers have Kindles, but they're still my customers."

Amazon may be selling more e-books than real books, but that's partly because it owns nearly all of the e-book business. Last year e-books still made up only 8 percent of all book sales, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Borders' demise was largely self-inflicted. The chain was late not only to e-books but to Web sales of printed books, which might have worked for a scrappy independent but was fatal to a national chain with too many stores. Borders bet big on sales of music, a business that has been transformed by the Web even more than print. The chain's demise may say more about music than books.

People who miss browsing, getting a coffee, hanging out, doing homework, tutoring and listening to author readings at Borders may wind up doing the same thing at an independent bookseller like Atomic Books or Books With A Past.

"The independent and used bookstore that does author signings, participates in community events, reaches out to the community, has an active Facebook page, uses Twitter intelligently, has fresh and interesting stock — I think they'll do fine," says Karin Isgur Bergsagel, who is the president of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and runs an online store for used books in Williamsburg, Va.

She's shifting her own business from what she calls "commodity" books — interchangeable, widely available, recently published volumes — to collectibles, first editions and other kinds of books that command higher prices.

Books will mimic food, she guesses. Literary Big Macs and Slurpees will be sold quickly and joylessly for iPad and Kindle while connoisseurs fuel a parallel industry of upscale hardbacks, limited-run editions, small-press offerings and books as objects of art.

"Many people will have reached a point where they're just fed up with fast food and prepackaged, supermarket stuff," Bergsagel says.

Matthews' hopeful metaphor is the movies. People stream video or watch it on discs on the small screen, she says, but that doesn't keep them from going to the cinema.

And books won't follow music, Ray figures. Unlike vinyl, 8-track, cassettes, CDs and the other transient music formats, the book in its present form has centuries of history and momentum going for it, he says.

"Two or three years ago, if you had asked bookstores what they thought about digital books, you probably would have heard, 'The sky is falling,'" says Ray. "Now it's: 'Remember when we were worried about that digital book thing? Well, that was kind of embarrassing.'"

Then again, for Borders the sky really fell.

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