On Monday, the news came that bookselling giant Borders had agreed to liquidate, shuttering its stores sometime this fall.
On Friday, the “going out of business” emails appeared in inboxes across the country, promising savings of up to 40 percent on books at Borders.
Borders has 399 stores, including three in Maine — in South Portland by the Maine Mall, in Bangor by the Bangor Mall and in Brunswick. It also operates a Waldenbooks at the Auburn Mall.
The South Portland and Bangor stores were said to be among the chain’s top performers, and a late-breaking deal in court may lead to the sale of 30 Borders stores to the Alabama-based Booksamillion Inc. Trade magazine Publishers Weekly reports that the deal is still evolving, but would likely include the Bangor and South Portland stores — if it comes to fruition.
If the four stores do close, it will mean a loss of up to 137 jobs in Maine, as well as sales tax, property tax, income tax and other revenues.
But to the book industry across the state — from publishers to small, independent store owners — the loss of Borders is larger, a sad sign of increasing pressures on the sector.
“I’m not happy that Borders closed,” said Marc Berlin, owner of Bookmarcs in downtown Bangor on Harlow Street. “When it opened it took business away from me, but it introduced a lot of people to books. I’m not sure how that’s going to happen now.”
The industry needs diversity, suggested Susan Porter, owner of the Maine Coast Bookshop & Café in Damariscotta, with different-sized stores offering different selections of books.
“I personally am very sad to see them go — I think it’s going to hurt us all,” said Porter. “Thousands of feet of sales space for publishers was important; it exposed a lot of people to books.”
Book publisher Dean Lunt, a Frenchboro native and owner of the Yarmouth-based Islandport Press, agrees.
“Going forward, I think it’s terrible for the industry,” said Lunt. “They’re bricks-and-mortar stores, and they get people thinking about buying books.
“I think the liquidation of Borders will hasten the overall demise of the traditional bookstore.”
The bankruptcy of Borders already has hurt his company; nearly all publishers lost payments from the company for Christmas sales. That included Islandport, to the tune of five figures, “which is significant for a company my size,” said Lunt.
Islandport is an 11-year-old regional publisher, employing five, putting out eight to 10 books a year, with a catalogue of more than 40 in print. The books include Maine classics such as “Bert and I” tales, along with new books by Mainers, such as “Where Cool Waters Flow,” by Randy Spencer.
And if the Borders stores in Maine close, that will also hurt his business, said Lunt. They were three stores in three good markets, he said.
“Collectively, they were my second or third biggest customer — always,” he said.
Gary Lawless, co-owner of the Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, said most customers coming into his store last week talked about the Borders news, and how it would likely mean more business for his shop. Lawless said he may see more business, but suggested that he and other small independent stores are under the same pressure that Borders was under.
“As more people go to buying online, or buying devices and getting their books supplied in a device, rather than as a book, it’s harder and harder to be a bricks-and-mortar standalone book store,” said Lawless.
In a state where “buy local” is a common mantra — almost militant at times — the small shop owners interviewed for this story were surprisingly sympathetic toward Borders’ plight.
Lawless said he tried not to compete head-to-head with Borders, focusing on more regional books, calendars and the like. Often, he said, he’d send customers looking for the latest best-seller to Borders. In return, Borders employees would send customers to Gulf of Maine to find local books.
Berlin had similar experiences. In addition to referring back and forth, he focuses much of his stock on Maine books, titles and authors, particularly focusing on the history of the Maine woods, fishing and hunting.
Lawless, Berlin and Porter noted that they get a boost from the summer tourist season, which helps them fight the trend toward online shopping and e-books.
“Maine has a unique situation. People come to Maine and they want Maine books. I’m not sure if they do that when they go to New Jersey,” said Lawless.
That said, both Lawless and Porter noted a new trend among some who visit their stores. People will browse for books, then take out their smart phones, scan the barcodes and order the books online.
Porter said small stores like hers are trying to diversify their product offerings to keep sales up. She pointed to a store in Massachusetts that was selling yarn and knitting needles and was giving knitting lessons, and another in Vermont that was selling a line of children’s clothing.
Porter opened up a café in the store, to help get through the slower winter period.
Lunt said he’s also shifted his business to deal with the online pressures.
This year, all Islandport’s adult books will be released as e-books, as well. In the next two years, he’ll look at doing the same with children’s books.
The big motivator for him, said Lunt, was when his inlaws came to visit. In their 60s and 70s, they each had a new Kindle e-book reader, loaded with titles for their vacation.
Judith Rosen, the bookselling editor for Publishers Weekly, said the liquidation of Borders will be “vastly unpleasant for [any bookstores] nearby.” The deep discounts will draw in customers, and the prices will be hard to beat.
Rosen said Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest bookseller, may eye the Maine market. The company has one store in Augusta, and rumors of it coming to the Maine Mall area have been around for at least five years.
All the booksellers interviewed said times were challenging, but they expected to stay in business, with a customer base that still enjoys browsing, picking and feeling books.
Brett Wickard, owner of the Bull Moose chain, agreed. The chain has 10 locations, two in New Hampshire and eight in Maine. Traditionally a music and video store, it expanded to books last year at its Bangor and Scarborough stores.
“We don’t think the reader, the music fan, the movie fan have changed as much as what some people claim. There’s some people who really enjoy books, collect books, enjoy music, collect it,” said Wickard.
You have to sort of build a scene around the customer experience, he said, making it easy for them to connect with the products. For example, the stores use soft lighting to make their customers more comfortable.
Having the variety of products, from DVDs to books, video games to music (even record albums) gives the customers a variety of options to look to when they come in the stores, he said.
But underneath all that, Wickard said, the people who run the chain are “math nerds” who analyze sales and see what’s selling well, and what’s not — and they adjust accordingly.
He said there were lessons to learn from the Borders collapse. The company was overburdened with debt, he noted, which limited their choices and agility as a business. The company made a choice early on to expand bricks and mortar throughout Europe, rather than make a big stake in the online world, he added.
But Wickard said he also sees a real opportunity for his stores going forward.
“The main thing we think about is this is an opportunity to listen to Borders’ customers, listen to where we need to improve,” he said. “Borders had a lot of customers. Part of the reason is we hadn’t reached them, swayed them. We need to have our ears and eyes open.”
The book business has been doing well, said Wickard, with double-digit year-over-year sales gains. That part of Bull Moose’s business continues to change, said Wickard, and that will be hastened by the Borders collapse.
“We’re going to expand more quickly into books across our company,” said Wickard. “And we’re going to hire some of the Borders employees, too.”