Empty Bookstores


Armed with a gift card and internet coupon, I spent several hours yesterday at two of the major chain book retailers.

I had a 40% off coupon from Borders for taking an online survey so I headed there first, since the coupon expires on September 7. I was hard-pressed to find anything I wanted to spend it on. There were some copies of books that are on my tentative to-read list, but had some damage. Either that or Borders is dog-earring the pages for you before you buy. For pre-damaged books I’ll go to Powells and buy them used. I did, however, come away with a 2010 wall calendar because I’ve never seen one of these before, and they didn’t have many. From Amber Lotus Publishing:

Haunted Realm Sir Simon Marsden‘s startlingly atmospheric black-and-white infrared photographs reveal this hidden world and his ghostly and beguiling images transport the reader to a different realm; a haunted realm. In The Haunted Realm 2010 wall calendar, each photograph is accompanied by accounts of the apparitions that have been reported at each site, and the strange and often macabre real-life events which are said to lie behind them.

I need all the atmosphere I can get. I also picked up a packet of two bookmarks with cartoon, colored skulls. More atmosphere. And a book, incredibly enough, John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things.

This took awhile. And in my ramblings around the store, I was dismayed to see a great deal of open floorspace. Vast oceans of it, between the racks of cards and gew-gaws and trinkets, and the few remaining racks of CDs, and then over to the books. Why are they not filling these spaces with more racks of books? And are they phasing out the music section entirely? The ‘horror’ section filled a mere five shelves, probably three feet across. Abysmal selection. But the cashier is happy to tell you that they can order in pretty much anything. If this were a tiny, hole-in-the-wall indie bookseller, you could understand a limited selection. But this was a half-empty Borders. This can’t be a good sign.

Next stop with gift card was Barnes & Noble. They don’t seem to be diminishing, no gulfs of space between book racks, and they don’t seem to have ceded any territory to gifts and trinkets. But they have no ‘horror’ section as such, it’s all mixed in with “fiction and literature,” the salesperson assured me. Well, not quite. H.P. Lovecraft was in the science fiction section, and while some of his stuff crosses genres, what I was interested in does not.

Still there was no hope of locating any of the more obscure titles I was looking for such as William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates, Fritz Lieber’s Conjure Wife, William Sloane’s To Walk the Night. I did come away with a collection of Lovecraft’s stories. I know they can’t stock every book in the world, but these are classics of the genre.

Has anyone else noticed dwindling book supplies?

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23 thoughts on “Empty Bookstores

  1. I’m relieved to say that here in Berlin the bookstores are quite filled! 🙂

    I think one of the major problems with the large chain bookshops in the States are the buyers. When I worked at one- gawd, anytime a new novel came out by a big time author, we would get a shipment of at least fifty (often more) copies. They never sold all at once, and thus were returned. After they were returned, a new shipment of them would come in. Usually on the same day that the returns went out. Meanwhile, we’d have only one or two copies of a midlist author’s books.

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  2. What a way to run a railroad! Seriously, that makes absolutely no sense. Borders in particular seems to be focusing more and more on the ‘gift’ type stuff, and like you said, tons of whatever is popular. I gave up going to Waldenbooks about 30 years ago because that was all they carried, whatever was on the best-seller lists. I think Borders is part of the same conglomerate aren’t they? They seem to be headed in the same direction as Waldenbooks.

    Are the big chains as popular over there as they are here? Or are indie bookshops still surviving?

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  3. Yup, Borders is Waldens parent company.

    And yeah, total insanity. Picture me (working alone most of the time due to lack of staff), trying to run the register while zapping all the return books and filling the boxes. While at the same time, the daily shipment would come in. I had to change the “gun” to “receiving” and zap all those books. The same darn books I was returning in the other box. Loonyville time.

    And yes, again. Nothing but bestsellers. You should have seen our overstock of people like King. His books on the shelves, his books on top overstock, his books in the backroom…And I don’t mean any disrespect to him. But we simply did not need three dozen of every one of his books (or any other author) at the same time!

    I actually don’t know any big chain bookshops here. There probably are some, just not noticable in the way Borders or Barnes and Noble are. Luckily, Germany is very protective of small businesses.

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  4. King was the one author I was able to find in abundance in the ‘horror’ section, along with Dean Koontz. The two of them filled most of the tiny horror shelves, leaving little room for anyone else. I’ve never read anything by either of them (except for part of The Stand) so I can’t comment on their writing.

    Madness, I tell you, madness!

    I’m glad some places are not caving in to the behemoth US companies business model.

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  5. I love independent book sellers, but, alas, they are hard to find. I usually end up ordering stuff online because the brick and mortar stores don’t have what I want.

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  6. I have to admit I often do the same thing. I know they can order it in if I ask, but with all the empty floorspace at Borders these days, you’d think they could carry a few more titles. Luckily here in Portland I have Powells. The only reason I ever even go to B&N anymore is because people give me gift cards to that store.

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  7. I SO want to support brick-&-mortar stores and especially independents, but I’ve noticed the same thing you have – the floor space is enormous (You almost never see those adorable, crowded little stacked-from-floor-to-ceiling type stores anymore) but the selection is pathetic – There’s nothing but bestsellers, calendars, and accessories that presume people have purchased some books SOMEWHERE: there’s never any shortage of bookmarks, lap desks, paperweights, bookends, and the like. I console myself by figuring that the indie sellers of old are keeping thier overhead down by selling on Alibris and sites like that, but the physical pleasure of milling around a bookstore, hunting for unexpected treasures, is hard to come by these days. I think I was on that class trip w/you during the Pleistocene Era, no? 😉

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  8. YES! That’s us in the foreground in that shot 😉 What a fun trip to the La Brea tar pits. Ah, the good ol’ days.

    Even my beloved Powells cedes some space to stuff other than books, although at the downtown Portland location you’d hardly notice. They are largely floor-to-ceiling books, it’s intoxicating to walk in there.

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    1. The East Coast sucks – I live within 20 miles of 2 world-famous universities, and we don’t have anything like Powell’s. I’m moving to the Pacific NW tomorrow.

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  9. I was a Borders customer for years (Michigan company and all that), but dropped them after getting ripped off by their coupon program one too many times. Went back to one last week for the first time in more than a year, and I noticed the same things — movie and music sections gone, wide open spaces and declining selections. Sigh.

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    1. We had a delightful Borders the next town over from me, and I used to spend so much time in it they practically delivered my mail there – I think they just had a really good staff who loved books and were willing to go the extra mile to make it an interesting place to shop. It closed down w/the idea that they’d move into a newer, nicer building, and then the economy sort of tanked and nobody’s opening ANY new stores.

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  10. I’m with you’all ~ I just swoon when i’m engulfed by floor to ceiling books. I think The Strand Bookstore is still open here in NYC? Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a pilgrimage there to schelp books home when you can find the more esoteric titles on-line easliy, and don’t need to use much upper arm strength when they are delivered to your home.

    gypsyscarlett, your description of the insanity of in-bound and out-bound books had me in stitches! The sad story is that publishers and book sellers are looking for the one big score (the Harry Potter, if you will)that makes their year, and they can stretch it into a franchise. So sad that so many great titles (and authors) don’t get any attention until readers give them word of mouth and/or blog exposure.

    But here’s a thought: as long as you can sit with your latte and read all the magazines for free, would you even walk to the back wall of the store? I like to squat and read in the comfy chairs as much as the next person ~ but do you think all the empty space in the stores means there are folks discovering you can do the same thing in your public library w/o having to buy the fancy, overpriced coffee? Could the economy be making it hip to borrow books again?

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    1. You know what’s not too bad, Rosie? the Borders near Penn Station. It is also a good place to kill time, off rush hour, if you miss your train and the next one is a long way off.

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  11. I understand frugality is the new thing. I don’t really see that many people sitting and reading at the bookstores, though. I haven’t been to the library in many years so I can’t compare to how many people are there. It’s a different experience out here, the place is full of kids running around and screaming, and no one shushes them. It’s pretty horrendous.

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  12. I figure the overpriced coffee (one of my guilty pleasures) balances out the cost of the magazine I’m going to read without buying (on the one occasion when I spilled coffee all over it, I purchased the mag in question and have it still – it features some cute crochet patterns.) I love my little public library, but they discourage food & beverages and sometimes I do like to camp out at one of the megabooks cafe’s.

    I love how all these people are embracing Frugality, or Living Below Your Means, as though it’s some kind of trendy new lifestyle – I’m waiting for the LBYM reality show where families compete to see who can out-cheapskate each other. I lived on the cheap before it was fashionable, but some of the folks who have gotten famous for it make some creepy recommendations – one woman is really proud that she washes and re-uses aluminum foil, and brags that none of her kids (she has several) has ever had a pair of shoes that was not previously owned. She and some of her acolytes seem to be really judgmental/resentful of relatives (usually in-laws) who buy the kids gifts that the parents deems wasteful or overly ostentatious; there always seemed to be convos on their message boards about whether it was appropriate to send the gifts back. I don’t have kids, but IMO if the gift is not dangerous, sexually suggestive, or insulting (you know, like a diet book for a chubby kid) just send a thank you note and don’t go taking offense where none is intended.

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  13. Ack, oh well, at least it was a magazine you had some use for 🙂

    People have completely forgotten the spirit of gift-giving. It seems like these days if it’s not on some “register”, costs hundreds of dollars or the recipient hasn’t specifically requested something there’s no point in giving a gift. Do you know anyone who works in television? You should suggest that reality show to them! 🙂

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  14. The whole gift thing has really come to bug me in recent years, and I’ve always loved exchanging gifts over the holidays. It’s just that so many people seem, anymore, to see a gift as some sort of scrip or legal tender: if it’s not exactly what they want, they have no qualms about expecting you to somehow make good, or replace it with something that they want but don’t care to buy. Some years ago Fang & I exchanged gifts with another married couple – he was friends with the husband, and I didn’t have an extensive knowledge of the wife’s size or taste, so I got her a pair of one-size-fits-all Isotoner gloves in a neutral color (I forget if it was black or beige.) Damn if she didn’t have her spouse call up mine after Xmas to ask where I bought the gloves so she could exchange them for something else. This was a woman with an Ivy-League MBA and a high-paying job – just HOW BADLY did she need the $20 worth of merchandise she was going to get in place of those Isotoners? And how could he have not been embarrassed to do her bidding?

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  15. Dear dog, (speaking as a dyslexic atheist) that is incredible. She couldn’t just donate them to Goodwill or the Salvation Army? Takes all kinds I guess. And people like often end up as characters in someone’s novel… I’m just sayin. 😉

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    1. Myself, I keep stuff like that in the car, in case an unexpected cold snap or ice storm renders me a bit less fussy.
      Not surprisingly, they are no longer married, and the ex-husband is with a much nicer woman who still, however, is sort of whippin’ him around if you get my drift. I think he just prefers bossy females.
      Now that you mention it, since we “kept” him in the divorce, the Ex is fair game for anybody’s novel!

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