Tag Archives: independent bookstores

A World Without Borders Bookstores

My Bookshelves

Dear Reader:

I am taking a break from Outside the Box in D.C. to comment on the news about Borders. Remember when the big-box bookstore rolled into town? Independent bookstores weakened and died. Patrons mourned, but they ended up shopping at Borders anyway because, let’s face it, Borders carried just about everything you ever wanted to read and more . . . plus you could have some great coffee and feel chic and intellectual sitting at a cafe table, sipping lattes and reading your Philip Roth, your Stephen King, or your Candace Bushnell.

Image from IMDb website.

Movies were made. Who can forget Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, in YOU’VE GOT MAIL? She tried so hard and loved her store so much, and it just about broke your heart when her authors jumped ship for bigger booksignings at the megastore “around the corner.” The movie ended with this feeling of inevitability. Little guys will lose. Big guys will win. End of story.

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com website.

And what is bigger than a big-box brick and mortar bookstore like Borders? An internet retailer. The virtual shelves of an internet bookstore are endless. End-less. Was the closing of Borders inevitable?

Probably. First, the rising tide of online shopping ate away at the retail giant’s sunny shores. According to some analysts, Borders did not adapt quickly enough with their online platform. Annie Lowrey wrote an article for Slate magazine slamming the bookseller for outsourcing their internet sales to Amazon early on. Then the tsunami of electronic books & magazines rocked the publishing world.

Some of us (read: older) readers love our hardcovers and paperbacks and glossy print magazines. We like the smell of books. We like the feel of turning the pages. We like dust-jackets. But as time goes on, I see more and more people reading on their Kindles and Nooks, and if we haven’t already reached a tipping point there, the time is fast approaching. In fact, I’m wondering how much longer we will have any new printed materials at all.

I still have certain reservation about e-publishing, namely: what happens if the power goes out? In a low-energy world where we’ve used up all the easily-available oil, where a non-renewable resource–coal–continues to power the electric grid of large cities, where that grid infrastructure is vulnerable to decay and terrorist activities, where we haven’t yet ramped up our alternative, sustainable options such as solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy technologies . . . in a world like that will electronic readers, tablets, laptops, and smartphones really be a reliable platform for information storage?

How will we make sure that the least affluent in our democratic society still have access to information? Will the rich and middle-classes be willing to buy e-readers for the poor via library programs, education initiatives, or flat-out charitable donations?

Will “somebody” be printing out at least a few hundred copies of the most important works, storing them in a secure location just in case? The thought of losing our collective knowledge gives me the willies! We will need all the information–scientific, sociological, historical, psychological, anthropological, etc–if, indeed, the fit hits the shan.

More of my library

Which is why we need to keep some of this (see pic above) even as we move into a new bookselling era.

The role of independent, brick and mortar bookstores will become increasingly important, I believe, in the coming years. For those of us who love “real” books, these stores will be suppliers for our fixes. They will also be micro-conservators of information, as will those of us who keep home libraries. Locally-owned bookstores will continue to provide spaces for book-lovers to meet, to talk about literature and the issues that literature explores.

Will we survive in a world without Borders? Sure thing. Click on the Indie Store Finder and check out a local, independent bookstore near you. Shop there. Buy something. Build a family library. Be picky. Go to a used book store and find some unusual books on subjects most interesting to you. Become an "information saver." If your bookshelves are already full, go through your collection and weed out the books you'll never want to read again and make room for some classics. Donate your old books to library book sales, swap groups at a community center or transfer station, or bring the best of them in to used bookstores to trade for some credit.

And, yeah. Go ahead and buy a Kindle or Nook or other e-reader if you want to. It's the wave of the future . . . the near future, anyway.

Day 17: Teeny Shoes & Other Things You Don’t See Every Day

Miniature Shoes at Old Town Shoe & Luggage

Dear Reader:

On Sunday, the Teen and Hubby and I went back to Alexandria, Virginia to while away a sultry late afternoon and snap some pictures of the historic Old Town neighborhood. The Teen and I took the Metro Blue Line to the King Street stop at the top of King near Diagonal Street. Hubby chose to ride to Alexandria on his bike going south on the Mount Vernon Trail.

Vine-Covered Pergola

The top of King St. is more “modern highrise” than “quaint Colonial,” but both the Teen and myself were drawn to this pretty pergola at the intersection. A few tables and chairs had been placed beneath the shade, and the Teen commented, “You only see nice things like this in a city.”

I replied, “It’s pretty, isn’t it.” Outside, I was nonchalant. Inside, I was secretly doing a happy-dance because my off-spring was finally letting go of her resentment and instead showing some interest in the scene around us. Not only noticing, but comparing and analyzing similarities and differences between the places she knows and the places she is discovering.

Used Book Store on King Street

I wanted to pop into the Book Bank bookstore, but we were supposed to be meeting Hubby half-way down King Street. A couple of twenty-somethings exited the store as we strolled past. The Teen said, “Get a whiff of that book-smell!” Then she went back to practicing texting on her cell phone and walking at the same time.

Town Houses

The buildings here are a mixture of retail, office space, and housing–one of the major signs of a vital, thriving, workable community neighborhood.

Horse Statue in Old Truck

The Teen was full of playful quips this afternoon. She saw this horse statue in the back of a vintage truck in front of the Hard Times Cafe and said, “You don’t see that every day.” Indeed, you do not.

Old Town Storefronts

Painted in vibrant or subdued paint, the various storefronts and shop doors lend color and interest to the street scene. I was struck, once again, how much more you can see on foot than on wheels. There is no better way to get to know a place than by walking it.

Old Town Movie Theater

The Old Town theater was built in 1914 and used to have a vaudeville stage on the first floor and a dance hall on the second. Now it shows movies on two screens and fits right in with the restaurants and shops on this end of the street.

Market Square

The closer we get to the Potomac, the quainter and more colonial the street becomes. The shops and restaurants seem a little more narrow, the sidewalks a little more crowded with cafe tables. We stopped at Market Square to take pictures in front of the fountain and listen to a street performer thumping away on his drums.

Market Square Fountain

There is a farmer’s market here on Saturdays, so I will have to come back again to pick up some weekend goodies and to browse that book store, too. I also want to find a locally-owned coffee shop. I’m becoming too dependent on Starbucks grande iced mocha coffees.

Visitor's Center

Here’s the Visitor’s Center where you can sign up for guided tours or pick up materials for self-guided walking tours of the notable historic buildings in the Old Town neighborhood. You often see guides dressed in colonial clothes standing with a group of tourists here. A bunch were about to go on a “graveyard” tour when we snapped this picture.

A Typical Street View

We strolled down the lower end of King Street toward the waterfront.

Waterfront Plaza

Down on the plaza overlooking the Potomac, people sat on benches or fed the ducks or listened to the street performers or watched a couple artists sketching portraits. Standing at the railing, we caught glimpses of huge catfish opening their wide mouths around pieces of bread thrown into the water. The sight of the boats bobbing at the moorings made me homesick for Maine.

Waterfront Restaurant and Boat Tour Area

As the sun was about to set, we knew it was time to walk back to the Metro station.


Hubby picked up his bike and sped off down the path toward home. The Teen and I took a last look at the water, and I put away my camera for the day. Instead of viewing King Street through a lens on the walk back, I decided to simply absorb the vitality and hominess and beauty of this wonderful section of the city.

Old Town Alexandria Public Square

Fiction Outside the Box

Dear Reader:

Yesterday my daughter decided to spend her Border’s gift card.

Yes, Borders–one of those mega-chains that can and do out-price and out-stock small independent businesses making it harder or even impossible for them to survive. I have to admit, Borders is one of my favorite places to shop. Just the smell of the place–the heady aroma of books mixed with the scent of good coffee from the cafe area–makes me happy. And the selection! Aisle upon aisle of every kind of book on every subject one could wish to explore.

It’s a book-lover’s paradise, and I love books. Not just reading them, but holding them, turning the pages, looking at them on my bookshelves and remembering all the quiet, comforting hours spent with my nose buried in them. Given enough resources, I’d fill my house with them, every room. As it is, my lovely husband built a whole wall of shelves for me in my tiny office. I’ve already resorted to shelving my books two rows deep and laying others flat when I couldn’t squeeze them in.

I can spend hours in a Borders bookstore, wandering from travel to romance to history to religion to nutrition. The workers keep an eye on me, suspecting foul play, but I just smile at them and continue browsing. It’s a rare day I leave without dropping fifty bucks.

But those days are over. This year, I’m shopping locally.

Once upon a time, I worked in a small, independent bookstore in Oxford, Maine. I know first-hand how the big book chains and Amazon.com cut into these little jewelboxes of literary treasure found in fewer and fewer of our small towns. The store in which I worked, Books ‘n Things, was owned and operated by Katie Whitehead. With a seven-month-old baby on my hip and trepidation in my heart, I went into the store and inquired about work. I was handed an application. Katie interviewed me a week or so later and offered me a few hours during the week plus Saturday mornings–a perfect schedule for a new, stay-at-home mom.

It was a dream job for someone who loves books. I had a discount. I had access to the newest fiction. Katie had a subscription to the New York Times Review of Books. The salary didn’t matter so much as the stimulation, the chance to get out of the house, the opportunity to use my baby-numbed brain a little.

Katie worked hard, she expected her employees to work hard, and I learned alot from her. I learned about Books In Print and publisher catalogs and how to “front” books on the shelf. As she insisted her employees count back change rather than depend on the calculator, even my math skills improved.

The best part, though, was the personal relationship with the customers. The regulars would come in week after week, and I got to know their preferences. We’d chat about our favorite authors or just about life in general. At Christmastime, people would come in to buy books for everyone in their family, and we’d wrap the selections in heavy, purple wrapping paper.

The store was small enough that I knew our inventory and could usually get a requested book into someone’s hand in less than a minute. If we didn’t carry the book, ordering was a simple process, and we would call the customer when their book arrived, most of the time within a week.

Katie advertised in the local paper every week, supporting the local economy. She donated books for school fundraisers, supporting local education. She gave many a teenager their first job. She hired teachers looking for part-time income to supplement their salaries.

Katie and her bookstore were an integral part of the Oxford Hills community, as independent bookstores are important to communities all across America. Dollars spent at a local business are much more likely to stay in the region. Studies have been done to show this. Read this study done in mid-coast Maine about the positive effects of local business on communities. Case Study.

Unfortunately, the survival of these small, literary havens is threatened every day by competition from the big-box and online book retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble. However, even the big chains admit that independents do a better job in some areas. Read this article about an independent bookstore in Illinois.

When a Walmart opens up shop down the road and offers steep discounts for the new release hardcover books, that cuts into one of the most profitable area of sales for independent sellers. You’ve probably seen the movie YOU’VE GOT MAIL, starring Meg Ryan as a children’s bookstore owner and Tom Hanks as a mega-book retailer whose newest store drives the little place out of business. That’s what happens to independents when Borders or Barnes and Noble rolls into town. Amazon.com offers the convenience of home shopping, and that, too, can eat into profits. It’s amazing to me that any of these independent bookstores have survived at all–but they have.

They have fought back with online shopping from their websites. They have fought back with a program called Booksense, which has now evolved into a program called IndieBound developed by the American Booksellers Association. One of the most exciting aspects of the program is the giftcard program which allows booksellers to accept each other’s giftcards. An IndieBound giftcard bought in Maine will be honored at a participating independent bookstore in Ohio.

Independents have also fought back by highlighting their uniqueness, their customer-service orientation, their ability to find new voices in literature that the big chains might miss. Because of these independents, smaller publishers and new authors get a chance to reach readers. Regional authors are often showcased at smaller stores. The booksellers at independents are often more knowledgeable than your average cashier at the big-box store.

We can help them survive by voting with our shopping dollars.

Katie sold her bookstore back around the year 2000, but Books n Things is still alive and well, now housed on Main Street in Norway. If you’re ever up that way, stop in and check out the selection. I’m sure the new owner will appreciate the interest and the business.

My town doesn’t have a bookstore. Neither does the town next door. Or the town next door to that. Even the city of Sanford lacks an independent bookstore. The town of Alfred has a nice antique bookstore, and Sanford does have a used bookstore run by a nonprofit organization, but for new books I’ve resorted to shopping at the Borders in South Portland and on Amazon. However, with the need for local-shopping pressing down on me, I’ve done a little research and discovered a locally-owned shop in Saco called Nonesuch Books. There is also a South Portland Nonesuch Books, so there really is no excuse anymore for shopping at Borders . . . or Amazon, as I can order the books online from Nonesuch or simply make a quick call to a helpful bookseller.

Which brings me back to yesterday. My daughter isn’t participating in my experiment, and she had this giftcard from a generous great-Aunt and Uncle. (Thanks Aunt Sandy and Uncle Niles!) I went into Borders with her, and that familiar smell of books and coffee hit my nostrils. I resolutely ignored the piles of discounted fiction calling to me and followed my daughter to the children’s section. Addiction takes many forms, and it just didn’t feel right to walk up to that checkout counter with no books in hand. They called to me as we wound our way from the back of the store where the smart spacial engineers stuck the children’s section knowing the parents would have to pass by tempting displays all the way to Harry Potter and back.

I’m happy to report that I resisted. Danielle spent the gift-card that was burning a hole in her pocketbook and happily read all the way home. Feeling slightly depressed, I promised myself a trip to Saco very soon, and dreamed of the day when some enterprising (and independently wealthy) soul opens a bookstore here in my hometown. In the meantime, I have library books and my bulging shelves to keep me satisfied.

For those of you who would like a little reading today, I’ve posted a short story on my Fiction Corner page. I can’t promise you it’s any good, but it is free!