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Guest Opinion: Loss of Borders Reflects National Change in Publishing and Bookselling

Local author Louise Marley weighs in on the long-term effects of a changing book industry.

Book lovers have watched with dismay as bookstores in and around Redmond disappeared over the past 10 years. Puss ’n Books was a charming store and a great local favorite, but when  moved in, Puss ’n Books couldn’t compete. Borders, like other big box stores, could offer a wider and more diverse selection of books as well as music, stationery, a coffee shop, and novelty items. Other independent bookstores, like the wonderful Totem Books in Kirkland, were forced out of business when Barnes & Noble came to nearby Woodinville.

This pattern has repeated across the country, with most independent bookstores giving way to the big chains. Parkplace Books in downtown Kirkland has held on, but it’s been a struggle, and the owners have occasionally relied on support from local authors to meet their obligations.

As an author who has been publishing since the mid-nineties, I’ve been witness to the dramatic changes in how books are published and delivered. In 1997, national distribution companies displaced local book distributors. The local distributors understood regional preferences. For example, Redmond, as the home of Microsoft, is a strong market for science fiction, and local distributors made sure bookstores and grocery and drugstores were well supplied with that genre.

National book distributors, and in particular Borders Books, viewed every book as a national product, without regard for regional interest.  As a Borders liaison told me once, “We just give every book a number.” That number determined how many copies of a title would be assigned to each store, and it didn’t vary according to regional interest. This harmed not only the authors of those books, but the readers who might have enjoyed them.

While other chain stores recognized and adapted to the new technology of electronic books—as did with its Nook e-reader—Borders was late in understanding how popular e-books would be.

Borders also fell behind Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com in online sales. Amazon has established a worldwide marketplace which is as close to every customer as the nearest internet connection, and this has transformed the way books are delivered, whether through the mail or electronically. Barnes & Noble was swift to develop an online retail presence, but Borders lagged, and by the time the company tried to catch up, it was too late to establish an effective brand.

Now Borders Books & Music will follow the small, independent bookstores into oblivion. It would be interesting to see if a bookstore—perhaps a re-emerging independent one—might step into that Redmond Town Center space.

If it doesn’t, Redmond will have a major shortage of retail locations for new books. That’s a hardship for readers who love to browse the stacks, and it could be happening in all the nearly 400 cities where Borders Books & Music will be closing their doors.

Stacey Davey July 20, 2011 at 05:35 PM
Though I do shop online for books regularly, I am a huge fan of browsing local book stores as a liesure activity both independently, on date night and with my kids during the day for popular children's storytime venues. Unfortunately It appears this is just the beginning of something greater to follow, books are disappearing in schools now too. Thank you for posting this article and I'm glad people are recognizing and talking about the changes both good and disturbing (call me a dinosaur in my 30's!) - to me.
Deborah Poarch July 20, 2011 at 05:58 PM
Books are disappearing in schools? Really? I remember studying at UWB. It was my first introduction to research. Looking through professional journals and microfilm was arduous and terribly time consuming. Now everything is at the tips of our fingers. More information flows, but I wonder about the quality. Time and effort can sometimes produce a better product.
Stacey Davey July 20, 2011 at 06:13 PM
Deborah - I was just talking with Dad who lives in Texas. He was telling me how the local schools there are discussing the purchase of note pads to download books for cost and homework efficiency. That way kids could turn in their homework as they read, testing would be tailored and results sent directly to the teachers. I haven't researched it but it wouldn't surprise me. There certainly are pros in my opinion but I also feel there are cons too.
Deborah Poarch July 20, 2011 at 09:08 PM
Wow. That sounds kinda cool actually. I used to buy software for WA CCs. One of them was an electronic portfolio for students. It provided for sharing with teachers and peers. One's portfolio could become one's resume for college and work. It's exciting. I don't know if my fears about loosing 'something', which I can't even define, are valid or if all of this will eventually be very good for humanity. I just don't know.
Karin Hsiao July 21, 2011 at 03:24 PM
I've been an Amazon shopper for years, but still feel that nothing beats browsing at a bookstore, especially a small, local one. Before I moved here seven years ago I had heard that the Pacific Northwest was home to countless independent bookstores; I was looking forward to shopping at them and was disappointed when there were so few in this immediate area. I'm going to cross my fingers for their reemergence. That may be naive, but I prefer to think of it as optimistic. Thanks for your thoughts, Louise.

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