Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Borders on the Borderlands

Borders Books has declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is closing about a third of its stores in an attempt to right itself, and a lot of people are viewing it as an end of an era, where the big box stores have been sunk by the rising power of online stores like Amazon, and the digital future chorused by kindles, ibooks, and nooks. And not a few give an ironic look at how these large chains sounded the deathknells for small indy bookstores, which apparently rampaged across the landscape like so many buffalo.

I don't quite remember it that way. I grew up in a bedroom suburb of Pittsburgh, and didn't have access to much in the way of a "real" independent bookstore. I had the spinner rack at the drugstores, the book department at Kaufmann's (yeah, once upon a time, department stores had book departments), and the local and school libraries. That was my ground level. Book stores were elsewhere - in the city, in other neighborhoods, and near universities.

(And as an aside, those looking for the secrets of the creation of D&D could get a leg up by knowing what volumes were available in the Lake Geneva Public Library back in the seventies - the situation there was similar to the Mt. Lebanon of my boyhood, but I digress).

Anyway, large enclosed malls showed up in our neck of the wood (nearby Upper St. Clair/Bethel Park) in the midsixties, and with the the chain bookstore. Waldenbooks first, then B. Dalton's. These became the vector for books as I got older and more mobile.They didn't drive any local stores out - we didn't have a lot of indies to take away in the first place. Later these were in turn superseded by Borders, which was the anchor store of the nearby Norman Centre II, at the top of the next hill over, practically on Mt. Lebanon's borders.

That first Borders was an amazing bookstore for its time. Two levels (!) with huge sections, wide selection, deep chairs, a fireplace, an elevator. Yeah, it sounds like standard equipment nowadays, but for the age it was pretty amazing. A magazine section that you would normally have to be in downtown Pittsburgh to see. As an author, I did readings there, and it was a regular stop in later years for taking my nieces for birthday books.

Of course, such infrequent visits were not enough to keep it going. The store at the top of the hill is on the list of stores that are going to close. When I was last there, it was like visiting an old friend wasting away from a debilitating disease. The shelves were moved further apart. The selection was diminished. A lot of volumes, previous set on groaning shelves, were now face-out to take up more apparent space. And the SF/Fantasy section was no longer a haven of new volumes, but rather overwhelmed with omnibus editions (like collections that hold my Warcraft and Starcraft books) for mass sales.

Later I would find the Barnes & Nobles in other cities, as well as other Borders - huge big boxes that made themselves destinations as opposed to someplace to visit when you were at Sears and Woolworth's. And these big boxes took their own toll on the Waldens and Daltons, though they were part of the same families as their gigantic cousins. So yeah, the chains got to places that indies would miss.

The chains also had an effect on gaming. TSR fought hard through the years to get a piece of the bookstore trade, aided by strong efforts by the merchandising division of Random House, which was seeking to expand out the presence of more than just books in the bookstores. One the reasons TSR did more hardbacks as the years went by as opposed to shrinkwrapped boxes was input from the bookstores - the problem was shrinkage, which translated into people breaking to boxes and looting the dice. Hardbacks showed less wear and tear, so they were the way to go. With the success of paperback gaming-world fiction like Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms series, we had carved out a chunk of the store as our domain. You go into a big box and it has a gaming ghetto on the shelves with WotC, Pathfinder, and other hardbacks, you're seeing the results of those early efforts.

The big chains did a job, carrying games into a new world. It was not always the smoothest or most impressive presentation (hence the gaming ghetto title), but it created a stable platform of sales over the years (good for the companies) and created a literate gaming-savvy repeat business (good for the stores).

And now Borders is no more. Whatever survives in its place will be charming and archaic, like those old live theaters that have been retrofitted for movies, the balcony sealed off and the mighty Wurlitzer silent. Independents will survive, even thrive in the post-asteroid landscape now that one of the big saurian families have been knocked back. Indeed, those survivors who understand books may re-establish themselves in the very same ecological niches. Maybe even in the empty space at Norman Centre II.

I know that some are quick to dump the moist earth on Borders' coffin and inter it, and its list of faults and flaws are many. But I also know the effect that these big chains had both on the development of my own reading habits and the growth of gaming, should not be forgotten.

More later.

[Update: Scarlettina provides a mothership of links. Scrivener's Error does a great summary, notes some stuff I had forgotten (Borders was part of K-Mart for a while), but gets wrong that it would be a while before the closing stores would be announced.]