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

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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.

Sidebar Elements

Gary Lawless, owner of Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, stands behind a bumper sticker he designed that declares “Booksellers Without Borders.” He had about 500 printed and is giving them away to customers.

Bull Moose to bid on ‘handful’ of Borders stores

SCARBOROUGH — Bull Moose announced Tuesday it will bid on a “handful” of Borders leases in New England, seeking to expand the entertainment store’s relatively new book-selling business.

“We added books to our Scarborough and Bangor locations and sales have been great,” Bull Moose owner Brett Wickard said in a news release. “The physical book is far from dead. People just want to buy them for a price as low as they can find online.”

Bull Moose made the announcement a day after the failure of a widely reported attempt to buy several Borders’ leases by Books-A-Million.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Wickard wouldn’t say which stores his company is seeking or how much the company would bid.

DJM Realty, the company guiding Borders through liquidation, lists the South Portland location for $11 per square foot, or $330,000 for the 33,000 square-foot store. The Brunswick location’s lease is on sale for $15 per square foot, or about $333,000. The Bangor store is up for bid at $17.12 per square foot, or $443,000.

The South Portland and Bangor leases expire in early 2016, while the Brunswick lease expires a year later.

At its two locations currently selling books, Bull Moose offers heavy discounts. Most books are on sale for at least 35 percent off the jacket price. Because of this, Wickard said the Scarborough and Bangor stores are reporting double-digit year-over-year increases in book sales.

Wickard said he hopes to turn the Borders’ locations into giant Bull Moose stores. While the emphasis would be on books, they would also sell the music, movies, video games and merchandise sold at other Bull Moose locations.

“Should we win the leases of any of the locations, they would become Bull Mooses with a much more sizable book section than we’ve done so far,” he said. “What would make them feel different than Borders would be more aggressive pricing and the other lines Bull Moose carries. They would be giant versions of Bull Moose, with huge, huge book sections.”

— Mario Moretto

Kati Hendrick, who’s been a book seller for six years, helps a customer gift-wrap a book Monday at Longfellow Books in Portland. “There’s nothing more satisfying than talking books with people who love them,” Hendrick said. 

Danny Parker and his daughter, Mollie Parker, 12, look for a good going-to-camp book for Mollie at Nonesuch Books & Cards in South Portland. “This is the only place we go,” Parker said. “We never even go to Borders.”

Customers browse the offerings at Longfellow Books in Portland on Monday, July 25. 

Jane Rotundi of Cumberland flips through a magazine at The Book Review on Route 1 in Falmouth. Rotundi, who was looking for a small book and card for a gift, said she usually shops there because it’s part of her neighborhood.

The interior of The Book Review in Falmouth.