San Diego Bookstores Mourn The Borders Bankruptcy
It may be tempting to cast the Borders bookstore chain as a bad guy in the book-selling industry. It might be logical to think independent book sellers would welcome the bankruptcy it announced this week. After all, it was a big player whose competition certainly put many smaller stores out of business.
But Adrian Newell, the head book buyer for Warwick's Books in La Jolla, was typical in her response to the news when she said the Borders bankruptcy will give her no good cheer and probably no new customers.
"It would be nice if they would migrate to all the independent stores in their various communities," she said. "But I have a feeling that a lot of them will go to online purchasing, and I think it just weakens the industry as a whole."
Borders' bankruptcy will likely result in the closing of more than 200 bookstores nationwide. Two will be in San Diego. But the inclination toward gloom and doom may be another temptation we should resist because -- fact is -- in the world of e-books and Amazon.com, there are bookstores that remain profitable, and they've done it by being more than bookstores.
Take Warwick's for instance. Their storefront on Girard Avenue says, Warwick's: Office Supplies, Gifts, Stationary, and Books. In that order.
Another bookstore that has made it by selling more than books is Comickaze Comics, Books and More, located in Clairemont. This is a place that sells comic books. But it also sells comic-book figures, toys and a large selection of graphic novels. I asked owner Robert Scott whether he was a bookstore or a comic-book store.
"I consider myself a comic bookstore," he responded.
I walked into Comickaze on a Wednesday afternoon when the new comic releases come out. I saw guys in their 20s with shaved heads and tattoos. They looked like comic book guys. But while the center of the store was dominated by comic-book racks, the walls were lined with bookshelves holding graphic novels and some prose. Graphic novels are basically comic books that are book length and are bound like books.
At Warwick's, their books sell at a slim profit. Gifts and office supplies are much more profitable. Scott says at Comickaze 80 percent of their revenues come from written material. He adds that selling books as a loss leader -- a product you lose money on to get people to buy other stuff -- is a losing game that has killed lots of bookstores.
"A lot of them tried to cover that up by selling muffins and coffee and other things. But nobody has been able to successfully sell books at a discount," Scott said.
He said he gets new people in the door by doing outreach to schools and libraries and by offering, once a year, a free comic book day. He said marketing his store just to comic-book geeks is preaching to the choir. You have to appeal to those people he says are comic book fans... they just don't yet know it.
One place that sells just books is Adams Avenue Book Store in Normal Heights. This is a used-book store. The manager is a bookish, white-haired man named Michael Smythe... the Old English version of the name, he pointed out. He said Adams Avenue Book Store has existed for 45 years. I asked him if the store makes a profit. He said that's a good question.
"We're pretty much on subsistence living here," said Smythe.
A handful of customers Wednesday quietly roamed around this bookstore, which is filled with wooden shelves, upstairs and down. Book categories are labeled with post-its and papers taped to the shelves. It has the look of a labor of love. That love is evident in Smythe, who spoke about meaning of the printed word.
"Our culture is encoded in print," he said. "The written word, as well as the typed word, is indelible. Words on a screen can appear and vanish."
Like the other booksellers I spoke with, Smythe mourned the bankruptcy of Borders. His love of the written word is shared by Adrian Newell at Warwick's, though she said her store has been unable to ignore the phenomenon of the e-book. Customers can download e-books using Warwick's website.
She said their treatment of the e-book has been discreet.
"It's been a fine line between not going out of our way to promote them over a physical book, which we'll never probably do. But we want to offer it as an additional service," said Newell.
While Newell agreed that bookstores can't stay in business by selling books at a loss, she said Amazon.com can. And it does sell some books below the suggested retail price. How do you compete with that? You schedule special events. You network. And you hope enough people still want to go to the bookstore.