Borders bankrupt

Russell Valentino

Borders will be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization this week, according to the Wall Street Journal. Then it will probably close between 150 and 250 of its 500 superstores and 165 smaller stores. I suppose some of the local independents will be happy to hear about this, all while feeling bad for the thousands of book store employees who'll be laid off as a result.

The book stuperstore has long struck me as a wildly luxurious phenomenon, especially after I learned that they don't actually buy those books from the publishers in order to display them in the store, at least not most of them. During the Depression, according to Jason Epstein in The Book Business, retailers were hurting and the relatively well-off publishers decided to help them out by allowing them to return unsold books for a credit on future purchases. The practice stuck and then spread and now is standard. After three months or so, a lot of titles come back, leading to the industry quip, "gone today, here tomorrow!"

So basically what you see when you go to a "retail" bookstore today is a consignment operation, with lots and lots of stuff that, when not purchased, will be sent back to a distributor or publisher, which they'll try and sell again, provided they're not too damaged. For lit mags, with their limited shelf life, the end of this process is pulping. For TIR some years that can be as much as 500 copies. Not a huge number, by accounts I've heard, but plenty wasteful and sad, and really only the tip of the iceberg.

The stuperstore takes advantage of the old Depression-era leeway by taking on huge quantities of stuff, in a way that independent bookstores, the kind that the original arrangement was intended to help out, are simply not in a position to do most of the time, because they don't have the space.

And now Borders, it seems, will have less of that, too.