On the Borders

I always marveled at the bricks and mortar book business, and could do so from inside a great American independent book store, The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, Vermont, (at which I steered its music department for almost ten years, a stint that ended in early 1987.) The business model for books was a kin of the business model for recordings, except that the pyramid of hot sellers paying for the carrying cost of slow selling inventory was steeper on the music side.

Of course, way back when, in a thriving college town literally protected from its brick competitors by 25 miles, my tenure happened during, in retrospect, what was a golden era for book selling. (It was much less so on the music side.) If the initial rise of the commerce-driven internet is marked to the year 1995, it still is the case that no thoughtful bookseller, at that time, would have anticipated digital books, e-readers, and, digital book piracy.

Amazon arrived in 1994. Their promise was to make available every book; ordered online and delivered by mail order. At the time unbelievers thought there was no way the tactile browsing experience would ever become uncompetitive. This kind of elitism was proved wrong well before the digital edition realized the unthinkable synergy of online purveyor and downloadable media. After all, the browsing experience was over-rated, and this was a fact I observed to be true while working and observing consumers during bookselling’s final golden age.

In Cleveland, Borders and Barnes and Noble discounted the best sellers, ran independent booksellers out of business, degraded their inventories (selection,) and seemed to me to work a hopeless business model by the time Amazon got rolling–by bursting out of the dot.com bust to ride a streak of losing billions of dollars–up until 2009. This debt-fueled strategy, presumably, plugs into their business model, but there’s no way to compete against it. Of course, Amazon is both a general retailer too and provider of infrastructure for a wide variety of partners, affiliates and associates.

As a book store customer, I saw Borders run the race to the bottom and win, thus lose. This struck me as death by thousands of relentless cuts. I’m not tempted to praise highly our local Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million. I appreciate the acumen (or more likely:piles of cash,) behind their survival, but the local Barnes & Noble stores aren’t very good book stores, and, the Books-A-Million I walked into and wandered around was worse. It was staffed by, apparently, ‘non-readers.’

Locally, this leaves the several independent book stores and Half Priced Books and Music. There isn’t anything close to the reader’s paradise of the olden days extant among these outlets. (Just as there isn’t a great record store left.) This leaves me using Amazon, and exemplifying the problem bricks and mortar cannot solve.


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