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Indies Under Fire

Indies Under Fire
March 28, 2007

Last week, the Borders chain -- which in 30 years has grown from a single used bookshop largely serving students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to a global empire, with stores in the U.K. and Australia among other places -- announced that it would be undertaking a major restructuring. Its new strategic plan will (in the words of a press release) “revitalize, refocus, and ultimately reinvent the company to achieve its mission to be a headquarters for knowledge and entertainment.”

So much for the usual nourishing corporate baloney. When you see that many “re-“ formations in an official statement, it’s a pretty reliable sign that steep cuts are planned. And so they are, in the wake of losses of more than $73 million that Borders suffered in 2006. Over the next year or two, Borders will close nearly half of its remaining Waldenbooks outlets in shopping malls (having already shut down a fifth of them in 2006) and scale back its overseas operations. It will also end its relationship with Amazon – clearing the way for “the debut of a new proprietary e-commerce site in early 2008.”

One provision of the new strategic plan is a call for “increasing effectiveness of merchandise presentation.” The press release does not give details, but somehow it bring to mind an image of life-size animatronic displays of Ann Coulter and Al Gore waving copies of their books.

Perhaps things won’t go quite that far. But it’s clear that moving beyond the familiar, pre-digital model of book buying is on the Borders agenda. “A new technology-heavy concept store that has been in development since late 2006 will open in early 2008,” according to an article in The New York Times. “Borders also promised to introduce ‘digital centers’ in its stores that will allow customers to buy audio books, MP3 players, and electronic books.”

All of which goes into the file for an essay that might be called – with a nod to Anthony Trollope – “The Way We Read Now.” If you doubt that Borders has had a profound effect, not just on the book trade, but on how readers interact with one another and with texts, then keep an eye out for a remarkable new documentary called “Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore.” It has been making the rounds of film festivals and been screened at libraries and bookshops, and a trailer for it is available online.

When a DVD copy of the film arrived a few weeks ago, it sat on my desk for a while before I found the will to pop it into the player. That hesitation reflected a suspicion that "Indies Under Fire" would prove to be an exercise in Michael Moore-style muckraking, with plenty of sardonic editorial commentary stomping all over the documentary format. (That sort of thing has its uses, of course, but a viewer really has to be in the mood.)

My misgivings were misplaced. Jacob Bricca, the director of “Indies,” has taken a far more subtle and balanced approach to showing the effect of Borders on small independent bookshops. Through interviews with the owners, staff, and patrons of five West Coast stores -- most of them eventually put out of business following the arrival of the chain in their neighborhoods -- “Indies Under Fire” makes a strong case that the explosive growth of Borders over the past two decades has undermined community institutions that can’t readily be replaced.

The shops that Bricca portrays in the “Indies Under Fire” are perfect examples of what Ray Oldenburg , a sociologist at the University of West Florida, has dubbed “the third place,” with home and work being the first and second. A life spent shuttling between those two poles is, in important  respects, only half a life. Third places are genuinely social venues -- areas where friends and strangers can meet, mix, talk, argue, pair off, and otherwise create new connections. Oldenburg discusses the third-place concept in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Paragon House, 1989).

The passionate attachment to their neighborhood bookstores expressed by patrons in “Indies Under Fire” makes evident why they qualify. The relationship with a store includes personal associations that mingle with public space. It is the place where one met certain people, first started reading a favorite book, or heard a local author talk about her new novel.
 
“People are saving two bucks on a book by buying at a chain store or on the internet,” says one person interviewed for the film, “but they’re going to lose this larger resource, this community resource they have. So the circle of reading gets smaller -- it’s just you and the book and your computer screen.”

But the documentary also gives employees of Borders a chance to make their case -- and it's perhaps a stronger case than anyone on the indie side would want to admit.

Protesters complain that Borders is imposing cultural uniformity across the United States by destroying small businesses. (Some anti-corporate activists, as we are told by one person hostile to the chain, will go into a newly opened branch and quite literally vomit.)

The representatives from Borders respond that the stores are competitive for the simple reason that they are attractive and well-stocked. And they have a point. As with most bookstores, Borders makes a great deal of its money by selling whatever the public is demanding at the moment. But even its least well-stocked stores tend to have a decent selection of work that will only appeal to small audiences. Unlike certain other chains one could mention, Borders has (for example) a philosophy section where you can find Judith Butler and W.V. Quine, rather than gallons of "Chicken Soup for the Soul."

An indie advocate who speaks in the opening of the documentary says that a great bookstore is one that doesn’t just have the title you are seeking. It also carries books you never knew existed, but that you discover you need.

Well, by that definition Borders may well qualify as a great bookstore -- painful as this is to say about an engine of soulless corporate monoculture.

What makes last week’s news of restructuring worrisome is that all the talk of “right-sizing” and “reinvention” might translate into reduced inventory, plus a heavier emphasis on sure-fire bestsellers. And the changes sure won't address one situation that the documentary doesn't mention: The Borders work force is almost completely non-unionized.

The DVD for “Indies Under Fire” is not listed in the Borders catalog. But you can purchase a copy here .

 

 

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