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UPDATE: Independent bookshops consider future without big boxes; Bull Moose to bid for Borders stores

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UPDATE: Independent bookshops consider future without big boxes; Bull Moose to bid for Borders stores

SOUTH PORTLAND — In the wake of the liquidation of Borders Group's 399 stores last week, local independent book sellers were left to determine what the big-box bankruptcy means for their future.

After all, in an environment where an industry giant like Borders succumbed to headwinds from "a rapidly changing book industry, the eReader revolution, and a turbulent economy" – the problems Borders said caused its downfall in an email to its rewards program members – how will the little guys cope?

Many of them, apparently, aren't too worried.

Several small, independent booksellers said that while they may have to deal with the same industry conditions as Borders, they are better equipped to deal with them.

"(Borders closing) says that we're the right size and they're the wrong size," said Chris Bowe, co-owner of Longfellow Books in Portland. "This might be the time for community bookstores again. We reflect and belong to the community."

What went wrong?

Independent book sellers universally offered their sympathy to the Borders employees facing unemployment.

They also said the sheer size of Borders stymied its ability to adapt quickly, and that the company lacked agility.

Nancy Randolph, owner of the small, Topsham-based publishing house Just Write Books, said that while Borders has been a great place for her to sell books, it wasn't exactly nimble.

"A small proprietor can tell me they need five copies of a book and I can deliver to them that day," Randolph said. "Borders had certain ways they could buy, and normally it had to go through the corporate office. A lot of people wouldn't want to deal with that."

The indie booksellers also made clear that small shops work under a different business model than bigger stores. Borders focused on retaining a huge inventory and occupying an ever-larger market share by opening more stores in the U.S. and Europe, both of which are nearly impossible for small companies.

"Borders was drowning in inventory and returning a lot of it to their publishers," Bowe said. "It wasn't profitable for them. For so long they weren't booksellers. They were real estate speculators."

Others pointed to Borders' reluctance to build its online business. While competitor Barnes & Noble had a strong online presence from the beginning, Borders outsourced it's online retail business to Amazon.com from 2001 to 2008. More recently, Barnes & Noble and Amazon both aggressively entered the digital book market by launching their own e-book readers, while Borders partnered with a Canadian company to distribute e-books.

Gary Lawless is an independent bookseller in Brunswick. He and his partner Beth Leonard both worked at Bookland before opening their own shop, Gulf of Maine Books, 32 years ago. 

"(Borders) made a lot of bad decisions," Lawless said. "They put a lot of money into CDs and movies right as that market was going online. They put a lot of money into building brick-and-mortar stores, and a lot of them didn't do so well.

"Unlimited growth is the philosophy of big-box shopping centers and the cancer cell," he said.

Common obstacles

Though Borders had a set of challenges unique to its size, the indies admitted changes in the industry that affect big booksellers could hurt them, too.

As consumption habits change and more of the market goes digital, physical bookshops – the kind where you can walk in and thumb through books you've never heard of – may have a hard time surviving.

"We've been through tough times like everyone," said Cheryl Perrino, manager of Nonesuch Books & Cards in South Portland. "I think there's no business that hasn't been affected, but we're holding our own."

"I'm not so foolish I don't see the parallels to what's happening with books and what happened to music," Bowe said. 

Lawless said he has even spotted people at Gulf of Maine Books snapping photos of books with their iPhones, only to buy them online.

"Books are becoming the LP or the eight-track. ... Actually, I hope it's the LP," he said, because people still buy LPs.

But most of the indie sellers said they aren't planning on changing their programing or habits to try and woo former big-box customers.

Some said they already did the same kind of literary events, such as book signings and readings, as well or better than Borders. One said Borders' customers would probably just start shopping online.

Bullish philosophy

But Brett Wickard – founder of Bull Moose, which operates 10 stores in Maine and New Hampshire – said his book-selling locations would try to implement some of Borders' successes in the coming months.

Bull Moose's Bangor shop started selling books more than a year ago, to great success, Wickard said. The Scarborough store joined the book brigade last fall.

"We should acknowledge that Borders did some things right," Wickard said. "A lot of people really enjoyed Borders."

Shortly after Borders announced it would close, Bull Moose manned the social media channels.

The company asked its customers – through Facebook, Twitter and its website – what they liked about Borders that they wanted at Bull Moose. The query received 118 Facebook replies by Monday night, many of which requested big comfortable chairs and a cafe. 

"What they did right was make a really comfortable atmosphere and a place to relax," Wickard said. "People really liked the free wi-fi, the family-oriented events. People like the magazine section and the coffee and the slightly sinful desserts."

Wickard wouldn't say exactly which features the Bull Moose stores would implement or when, but did say the stores would try to hire laid-off Borders employees. 

The indie difference

All the independent booksellers showed consensus on one belief: the industry is changing, but the outlook is better for smaller shops.

It's the employees' personalities, the community ties and the responsiveness to customers needs that set the indies apart, they said.

"One of our best-selling sections is our 'recommended' section," said Perrino, the Nonesuch Books manager. "There's always someone here who can help a customer find the book that's right for them. That's why people will come here instead of going online."

A sense of optimism was tangible in the indies' words when they talked about their relationship with customers. They are convinced they offer something different. While Borders may have had every book you can imagine, the  indies offer a different experience for a different clientele: Borders sold books to everyone; indies sell them to "book people." 

"It's a business, but it's a little different," said Donna Williams, co-founder and owner of the Book Review in Falmouth. "We're not quite like a museum or an art gallery, but it is a cultural offering. ... There are consumers who prefer to shop local and prefer a personal touch and want help. That type of service that we offer is important."

"People might be ready to support the village life again," said Bowe, of Longfellow Books. "Places like Borders make people think they could have everything, which meant they didn't value anything. Small can be beautiful. To have relationships with the people who run the stores in your community, it really matters."

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow Mario on Twitter: @riocarmine.