or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Another Take on the End of Borders

   July 26th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Borders sign: No Public Restrooms - Try AmazonLast week, the owner of Gibson's Bookstore in Concord, NH, sent a message to all his customers about the closing of Borders. There are primarily only two big bookstores in Concord, Gibson's and a Borders, so you might think this would be a celebratory message.

It's not. It's a very somber analysis of how the closing of Borders has the potential to have a widespread negative impact on the bookworld at large. I know there has been lots of articles and posts about Borders closing, but I thought this was worth passing along - thanks, Michael:

Book lovers love to go to bookstores. That’s always been true, and always will be.

Most people remember the first time they went to a book superstore, to encounter what seemed like acres of space, visual interest everywhere, beautiful art on the shelves, infinite discoveries awaiting the explorer, symbols of learning and entertainment as far as the eye could see. And room for like-minded explorers to gather and celebrate their love of books, often with coffee, that drug of choice for the serious reader.

It was Borders that pretty much invented that concept in their flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was Borders that spread it across the nation. And today, with Borders going out of business, book lovers are upset and worried. What does this mean for the future of the book industry and of reading in general?

Let me get to that answer in a roundabout way, through a little local history.

When I bought Gibson’s - Concord’s oldest retailer, and now the oldest independent bookstore in New Hampshire - in 1994, it was my belief that Concord was too small a market for chain bookstores to enter. Amazon was still just a glimmer in a Wall Streeter’s eye. There were other small bookstores in the area. I thought we could coexist, serve our market in different ways, and grow.

Borders entered the area in 1999, right after we had doubled our space and added Bread & Chocolate as our café and retail partner. I was surprised and, frankly, worried for the future. Borders was like another independent, that was the buzz, except they were eight times larger than you, had a limitless supply of cash, had whole teams of people working on issues you could only tackle after you’d put the kids to bed, and - the killer - they had a real literary culture. It was hard to find a weakness there. It was hard to convince yourself that you had a future. All you could do was believe in yourself, in your book and business smarts, in the people you had around you, in your public, and in your luck.

Gibson’s took an immediate 25% hit when Borders opened. This was standard and inevitable. We were prepared for it. What we weren’t prepared for was that we would never climb back. Between Borders, the rise of Amazon, loss of parking, and various recessions, we were hard-pressed to stay in business at all. It wasn’t money but pure stubbornness that motivated me, to be honest. That, and the fact that I just loved books.

What did we do? Whatever we could do with no budget, because, frankly, sales were lousy. We introduced a loyalty program, we started doing more events and attracting bigger authors to the area, we built our newsletter and our presence on the Web. We did as many offsite events as we could handle, partnering with dozens of non-profits and schools. We became active in trade organizations, and through networking and staff development we improved what we do in the store.

Adversity made us better. Not richer, but better.

Over the same period, what did Borders do? They continued to attract great bookselling talent at the store level, here in Concord and across the nation. But at the management level, in Ann Arbor, they lost their focus. They frittered away a great brand. Injudicious long-term leases meant that they were stuck in many unprofitable locations. Their business model of the 1990s - relying heavily on CD/DVD sales, encouraging people to lounge for hours without buying - didn’t translate well to the 2000s, and the folks at the top didn’t come up with a viable new approach.

The Borders board in Ann Arbor hired team after management team with no book experience, and not a lot of their innovations worked. Outsourcing their online sales to Amazon, during such a critical time, was a mistake that will be studied in business schools for years to come. Aggressive “upsells” of Borders rewards cards alienated many customers (not to mention booksellers who were disciplined for not meeting their targets). “Category management,” a philosophy imported from the supermarket trade, didn’t translate well to the book industry. And that “make books” program - in which every bookseller in the chain was obliged to hand sell a particular title, as if it was his own favorite - was off-putting to readers who expected to get real recommendations from the talented booksellers they met at Borders.

And so the machine ground to a halt, and a once great chain eventually went out of business. Not because of e-books, not because of Amazon, not because of tough conditions in the book business, but because bad decisions made them vulnerable to those tough conditions.

How do we feel about that? Not good. Sure, Borders made our life difficult, and they didn’t make good decisions over the past decade, but let’s face it, the book industry has just lost millions of square feet of display space at a critical time. Even though e-books have not made the apocalyptic inroads that you might believe from news reports, the industry needs showrooms. The industry needs physical bookstores. No one has figured out how the industry can sustain itself, not to mention how writers can put food on their tables, without physical bookstores, and now all but a few thousand have disappeared.

This is not good news. So even though meeting payroll has just become easier, and maybe we’ll now have the resources to improve what we do here, we at Gibson’s are not as happy as we thought we’d be. The loss of a bookstore is sad for all, and the loss of 500 sadder still. Many of these were beautiful stores, a reader's dream. And they were staffed by thousands of people who love books just like we do.

We don’t know what the future holds. We might expand, we might sit tight. Another chain bookstore might move into the area, or they might not. E-books might take more than the 20% of the market we predict. The situation is in a terrible state of flux.

All we say is this: we are committed to the art of bookselling in Concord. We believe that the independent bookstore is a model not only from the past but for the future. Despite the rise of e-books and the cultural challenges facing our nation, there has never been a better time to own an independent bookstore. Readers still want physical books, and they want to shop in bookstores that are staffed and lovingly curated by local book people. We want to craft the best possible store to showcase the best the book world has to offer. We want to build it so they will come.

To do that, we need your help. In the next few weeks, we’ll be sending out emails describing some new initiatives we’re either contemplating or implementing. Please send us your ideas, too. And above all, buy books from us, if you want there to be an independent bookstore in Concord. That’s all it takes. The future, in large measure, is in your hands. If you want this store to stay in business, give your business to this store. We promise to do our best to earn it.

--Michael Herrmann & all your friends at Gibson’s

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Where Is A Library’s Community?

   September 29th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Here's an interesting situation - so interesting, in fact, that I find my self in agreement with both sides of the issue.

Concord (NH) Public LibraryThe Concord (NH) Public Library found that it couldn't afford to purchase all the books it wanted. So, it started a program where patrons could purchase and "donate" a copy of a book from the Library's wish list.

Great idea. They explained the program on their website, set up wish lists on Amazon, and waited for the books to roll in. Good use of Web 2.0-ish technology, right? Patrons could just click and pay for the book, and it would be shipped right to the library. Kudos to the library for being creative and proactive and making it easy for the public to support the library in a very useful way.

But after four weeks, only four of the 30+ books on the wish list were purchased.

Gibson's BookstoreLast Thursday, the owner* of the independent Gibson's Bookstore in Concord sent out a message to his customers. He explains very well what he feels the library did wrong, and appealed to his customers to support the local library buy purchasing the books locally. He even created a duplicate click-to-purchase wish list for people to use to donate books to the library.

The result? In less than 24 hours, all of the remaining wish list books were purchased to be donated to the library (which is why the wish lists are now empty).

This benefits the library, right? And it benefits local business, which benefits the tax base and the local workers, and everyone is happy, right? So why didn't the library just do that in the first place?

I wonder: could the library have done anything differently? I think the Amazon wish list was a good idea, but it wasn't successful. I don't know what kind of promotion it got, but perhaps the library's website just doesn't get enough traffic.

Also, the idea of a library partnering with a local business is a bit of a sticky wicket**. Being a non-profit government department, libraries usually cannot do anything that would imply it favors one business over another. But I suppose it would have been okay if the library approached all the bookstores in town - which I think is limited to Gibson's and a Borders, anyway.

This then starts to make the program more complicated and difficult to manage, to make sure patrons don't purchase duplicate books. But by opening the program up to the customers of the stores, the library would have been able to reach more members of the community.

Library communities are not just the people who come through the door, and certainly not just the people who visit the website. When libraries reach out to the community, we have to go to where the community is, and not just wait for them to come to us.

UPDATE: Article and reader comments at the Concord Monitor newspaper

UPDATE 10/1/09: The Concord Library created a second wish list, and distributed it to Amazon, Gibson's and Borders (in-store lists only). That's the best way to get it filled quickly, by distributing it as widely as possible to get the message to the patrons. And then, as Michael from Gibson's says, "It's up to us to convince you to shop at Gibson's--as it always has been."


*Full disclosure: the Director of my library is married to the owner of Gibson's.

**I love that phrase.

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Tests for Hiring and Training

   July 30th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Cones in the stacksOne of my coworkers and her husband run Gibson's Bookstore, in Concord, NH. When hiring new employees, each applicant is given a knowledge of literature test to see how well they'll do at reader's advisory.

Their opinion is that bookstore staff are first and foremost reading advisers, and cashiers and stockers second. The test questions cover a broad scope of literature, just like the questions of customers (and library patrons):

2) Name five characters invented by William Shakespeare.
13) What is Ender Wiggin famous for?
14) James and the Giant ________ by Roald _______.
23) Why do some Sneetches feel superior to others?

To get hired, applicants must get at least half of the questions right. Perhaps libraries could implement something similar? Perhaps they already do.

I also have a list of reference questions and tasks I give to reference staff after they've been hired, to help with training. It is based on something my director found (can't remember what or where), but I tailored it to get new staff familiar with the type of questions we get, our collection, our policies, basic tech support, and reference in general. They get it as a Word document, and work on it for their first few months.

Some people like tests and some don't. But each in their own way, I think these tests are valuable to make sure that the people interacting with the public are really able to help the public.

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