Letter to the Editor
Davis Enterprise

Borders Books is a wolf in sheep's clothing, and the wolf is poised at Davis' Door.

What began as a respected bookstore by two brothers in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1971 has now evolved into a destructive literary juggernaut. It is one of several predatory chains of book “superstores” (another primary one being Barnes & Noble) which, in their attempts to outgrow the others, are rapidly encroaching into American communities.

In their wake, they are destroying scores of independent bookstores. Alarmingly, this is reducing the book selection for readers in city after city. Because of their immense physical size and enormous corporate backing (a typical Border’s store costs one million dollars to open), independent bookstores are virtually helpless to successfully compete.

This phenomenon has spread swiftly and with amazingly little public protest. Many people are initially excited with the prospect of a large chain bookstore coming to their town. After all, what can be wrong, they ask, with nice bookstores that sponsor high-minded programs like “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” A year or two later, many of those same people are looking at the toll these “nice” stores with their oligopolistic marketing strategies are taking on their communities and wondering if it’s been worth it.

1) When a Borders or Barnes & Noble plants itself in a town, the independent bookstores invariably suffer loss of sales. Many simply go out of business. In the last year, book trade publications have become virtual obituary notices for the many, many independents strangled by the superstores. With fewer independent bookstores in the community, the chain store increasingly becomes the gatekeeper of books and information for that community. In Borders’ case, it is crucial for Davis readers to understand that they would be beholden to a handful of corporate book buyers in Ann Arbor who decide which books are carried at all Borders stores. I’ve found little proof of Border’s claim that they adapt their stores to their host communities. One can walk into any Borders in the U.S. and see virtually the same selection of book titles.

2) Because of their immense buying power, the superstores are shaping what books are being published. Before publishing a book, several publishers are now asking the chains if they would carry it. If the chains say no, the publishers may decide not to publish that book. Many of us consider that de facto censorship.

3) Because the chains have become enormous, publicly traded companies, I believe they have little feeling for their books other than as commodities. The stock market demands return on equity. If a book does not sell quickly enough, it is removed from the shelves and probably not carried again. An independent will tend to carry a book longer. The chains scale back their inventories in response to their stockholders’ demands for higher returns.

4) Not just higher paper prices are driving the cost of new books skyward. A new, hardbound novel now costs upward of $25 compared to $19.95 just a few years ago. Publishers have inflated book prices with the knowledge that superstores will simply discount them to below $20 anyway. Independents usually cannot afford to offer such discounts on a regular basis.

5) The chain superstores are eroding the ethics of what once was a noble book trade. Their growing clout has enabled the chains to receive preferential treatment from publishers in the form of financial subsidies and lower book prices. It has taken the American Booksellers Association, filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of independent bookstores, to stop such practices.

6) Reflecting the trend toward homogenization and consolidation of retail in one location, Borders carries not just books, but videos, CD’s, magazines and newspapers, CD-ROM’s, coffee and food under one roof. Such a mini-mall mega-business at Aggie Villa would vacuum foot traffic from the core area and could damage all downtown retail. Thus, Davis’s proud, small town diversity would be threatened.

Being primarily a used book store, Bogey’s Books has the least to lose if a Border’s is allowed in Davis (in fact, used book stores tend to prosper near the chains due to the influx of new books). But I’m moved to participate in the campaign against a book superstore here after seeing the heart-wrenching destruction of bookstore after bookstore in cities across the country in just the last few years. These were stores painstakingly and honorably built by people not in business to get rich, but to share their love of books with their communities. I don’t want to see my own competitors risk a similar fate.

It has to be understood that the question of allowing a Borders in Davis is not simply a Wal-Mart type issue. There is much more involved here than the fear of competition. Examine closely the behind-the-scenes character and integrity of the business we might have in Davis’s downtown. Book superstores have insidiously grown in economic clout and have aggressively targeted the markets of independents. They are wielding increasing pressure on publishers and have engaged with publishers in cunning discriminatory business practices. Ironically, and worst of all, because of likely fewer local buying choices for readers, they ultimately restrict the flow of books and information to the communities they purport to serve.

Mark Nemmers
Bogey’s Books
January 1997

[ Homepage ]