Arthur Louis's Blog

Arthur Louis

Arthur Louis
February 28
I was a writer and editor for more than forty years with four newspaper and magazine publishers. I am the author of two non-fiction books: "The Tycoons" and "Journalism and Other Atrocities," and one novel, "The Little Champ," all available on


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MAY 17, 2011 7:25PM

Requiem for a Bookstore

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They closed my favorite Borders bookstore this past weekend. Perhaps half of all the stores in the Borders chain were fingered for extinction after the company announced in February that it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. My favorite branch, the only one less than thirty miles from where I lived, was one of them.

Funny about that, because this store always seemed to be thriving. The parking lot was usually full, or almost full, and hordes of book lovers could be found swarming about the vast sales floor, night and day. There always was an annoyingly long wait to buy a book, even when all five registers behind the checkout barrier were manned (or womaned).

But obviously something was not quite right financially. Bricks-and-mortar bookstores are succumbing to competition from Internet retailers, such as Amazon, which because of their low overhead can afford to give their customers deep discounts on most of their merchandise. The bookstores also are suffering from the pernicious spread of electronic readers, such as the Kindle device, which allow people to download any of thousands of books wirelessly at much less than the cost of a hard-copy book.

I wasn’t that crazy about Borders as a corporate institution. They had a stubborn tendency to charge full list price for just about everything in their store -- even language textbooks (my hobby) bearing prices like $89.95 or thereabouts. Would it have killed them to knock $10.00 off the price, the way Amazon almost invariably does? As I understand it, a bookstore can routinely get a $90 book at wholesale from a publisher for 60 percent of the list price, or $54. You could make the case that by almost never reducing prices, Borders cut its own throat.

Yes, yes, I know that it was possible to get a discount now and then if you were a regular Borders customer, and held one of their Borders Rewards cards. You would occasionally receive an email, containing a coupon good for 25 percent or 33 percent off the price of one item, if you hurried in during the next couple of days. But a round-trip drive to Borders cost me about $8 in gasoline, so if I got one-third off the price of a $24 book, I was only breaking even.

After the company announced that it was going into Chapter 11, it continued to behave as stingily as a Scottish sheep broker. At first, it conducted sales at its doomed outlets featuring prices 10 to 20 percent off of list. That was nothing, particularly with the price of gasoline what it was, and the merchandise didn’t exactly fly off the shelves.

Borders also announced a plan allowing customers to enjoy future discounts at its outlets if they paid a substantial fee up front. Great! You want us to pay up front to buy books at a store that is about to close? It may be that the company is run by descendants of P.T. Barnum. “This way to the Egress.”

Finally they started getting serious. The discounts rose to 30 percent, 50 percent and, on the final weekend, everything was being sold at 75 percent to 90 percent off list. Unfortunately, by that time all that was left in stock were the doggiest books ever published. I swear that I looked at every one of the thousands of titles on the shelves, and wound up reluctantly buying just one -- a mediocre guidebook to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I have family.

A friend came along with me, and she was considerably less picky. It happens that she enjoys shopping for its own sake, especially bargain shopping. She bought sixteen books at about $5 apiece that would have cost her a total of more than $300 in the old days. Looking at the titles, I concluded that she is unlikely to read a single one.

For me, going to Borders was never entirely about buying books. I would go there an average of once a week, but more often than not I wouldn’t buy anything. Instead, I wandered all over the place looking, savoring the presence of all those books all around me, seeing what had recently been published, nosing through old books on obscure topics, sometimes just enjoying the cover art. A scholastic nerd returning to the literary womb, I suppose.

I sometimes do the same thing at the public library. Instead of looking up books on whatever topic interests me at the moment, I just wander from shelf to shelf, as though I were browsing a store. At a library, unfortunately, such behavior seems peculiar, and attracts unwonted attention. Every librarian in the place will come up to me and ask if they can help. Maybe they suspect that I am just taking shelter from the weather, and want to determine whether they can eject me on hygienic grounds. Or perhaps they think that I have gone mental.

It was never like that at Borders. They were content to let me wander, and perhaps at the end I would buy something.

So, what do I do now?

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