Big Sale at Borders San Rafael: The Tribe Moves On

by | Apr 11, 2011

We went down to Borders today. It was like a courtesy call, stopping in at the home of the bereaved. The community gathers mourning the loss of the big store next to Toys R Us and Barbeques Galore. It was my book design research lab. The store that had killed the independent bookstores and had then somehow turned into our own neighborhood store.

Many trips over the years, standing in the long lines before Christmas making friends with the other people winding their way past the restrooms in the back of Research.

Many afternoons in the Children’s section, books strewn around the carpet as the hours wiled away.

But not today. The computers are gone, books have been brought out of a warehouse somewhere, the information desk is stacked with books. No information today. Pretty big crowd, though.

Technology? Or Something Else

Even today people are down there shopping. The story was always busy. Of course, they had 10,000 square feet or whatever for their music department, that’s an albatross.

Mismanagement? Bad Strategy? Or just the nature of the beast. Books have always been ideal for direct selling, they don’t break in shipping. Now everyone shops online in the big bookstore with millions of titles. Or people have switched to free ebooks, Google and Project Gutenburg could keep you busy for the next couple of hundred years.

Besides, books only cost $.99 now, right? How will a huge store in a strip mall compete with that? And what’s the business model of a store the size of a warehouse filled with books that were printed before they were paid for, which is starting to seem like an archaic concept in the age of print on demand.

Discoveries and Serendipity

book design

Click to enlarge

Jill brought over a book she wanted to buy: The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo (Conari Press). Although the size of this book is listed as 5″ x 9″, the book itself measures 5″ x 9.25″.

By comparison, a trade paperback is about 4″ x 7″ and a small trade paperback is 5.25″ x 8″ so this book is extraordinarily tall. I had seen some others like this a few months ago, but took a longer look at this one when we got the beast home.

The book, which is nicely designed, is 440 pages. Each page is about 30-40% longer than a book with a more typical page proportion. On a more normal sized page, it would probably run over 500 pages, quite a difference. Have a look.

I don’t know what it would be like to read these long pages. This book is pretty well suited to the format because it’s composed of a lot of small pieces of text. Would it be fatiguing? Heavy to hold?

book design

Click to enlarge

Sales and Sales

All over the store there are big “Sale” signs announcing “30-50%” discounts. Of course, Borders always billed itself as a discount store anyway, and I can’t recall more than a few times ever paying retail there, since there was always a coupon.

Some racks were 50%, but they were likely to be non-book items or discount table fodder. The rest were a whopping 20% off. Not exactly earth-shattering. Still, people lined up.

We headed for the registers. Jill had found a couple of books and I had a nice-looking book on pies and tarts. She said, “You know, I never would have come across any of these books shopping online.” She looked around at the store. “There’s so much to look at here, you just start picking things up.”

She’s right, and it’s one of the big differences between books and other digital forms, like music. I would much rather buy music online, where I can sample anything in the catalog easily.

But books? Not so much. It’s not much fun browsing compared to going to Barnes & Noble’s store near here and poking around to see what we see.

It’s odd to think of missing Borders. The fellow at the register, who has worked there for a while, said they would be open until the end of May. Seems like a long time to carve up a carcass. Soon they plan to sell the fixtures.

A Deathly Memory

I guess my strongest memory of Borders was when the Deathly Hallows came out. If you remember the frenzy surrounding the long-awaited culmination of the Harry Potter saga, I do too.

Through a series of coincidences I found myself home alone that night, and drove down to Border’s to see if I could snag a copy. Naive me. It was just past midnight, and for a mile and a half or more in either direction, every parking lot along the road was parked to the edges. People walked from that far to get to the store to join the launch party in progress.

I cruised the store and peeked in from my car, it was impossible to even stop. The place was packed, rocking to the communal celebration of the power of literature to move us, en masse. The awesome ability of one woman, writing alone, to transport people around the world to these almost primitive, tribal celebrations. The amazing story had come to a close. We celebrated the story and the storyteller, and we celebrated being a witness to it.

As I drove away that night, I thought I had seen a gathering of the tribe, the people of the book, that was so strong it would never die. What I didn’t know was just how quickly it would move on.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Nancy Bartlett

    Joel and Jordan, the joint picture you paint is exactly the book store model I’d like to see take over.

    Barnes and Noble had a little bit of that flavor for a while, at least in the Seattle area. The stores had groupings of big comfy chairs that were always full of people reading. My habit was to gather all the books I was considering, head to one of those chairs to browse deeper and make my choice.

    Last time I was in a B&N – about a year ago – the chairs were gone. The only place you could sit was in the cafe, and you weren’t supposed to bring books in. I didn’t buy that night and haven’t been back.

    Third Place Books near Seattle was created to be a community hub that sold books. It’s a great place. Also the site of my first ever book reading, so I’m a particular fan. I haven’t been in a while so just checked in at their website and found that they have an indoor farmer’s market, they even sell that lettuce!

  2. Jordan

    Book publisher like me are not broken up over the demise of big chains like Borders. They were always impersonal places that tried to cater to book prople. They were run by corporate types…. mainly by non-book lovers although I have met exception. They were the fist to kill the mom and pops… the book culture we grew up with and feasted at. Amazon finished them off with few exceptions. They did a great job for their stock holder — for a while — but gave small publishers and self-publishers the finger. They cared less for art, taste, and ideas and called books products and rate authors by their platform. Farewell strategic marketer and catagorey managers. Long live the indy book store.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for contributing a valuable perspective to this discussion.

      I’m just really curious whether we might see a renaissance of the indie bookstore with more participation from publishers and readers both. An Espresso book machine, downloadable ebooks, a café, performance space, lectures and strong community focus. Now that would be something.

      • Jordan

        I think it’s already happening in urban areas and will take root elsewhere as the giants fall and make room for more nimble models to evolve.

        Outside influences like gas bumping $ 5 or $6 will put pressure on travel and keep people closer to home and create time to consider read more.

        Community interest and participation made bookstores thrive because they they were home to culture and ideas that people cared about. Not just a selling product

        Bookstores and libraries were where knowledge treasures were buried and sought out. People gathered there to learn and discussed issues and art in casual and organized meetings. Some of this culture is now part of the blogosphere but I don’t see it going away entirely. I would rather talk then type. Wouldn’t you?

  3. Nancy Bartlett

    Bittersweet. All the mixed emotions of Borders closing in one post. I’ve experienced all this at Borders too: the crowds at a signing, writing in the cafe, finding just the right book while looking for something else. I’ve also wondered, in recent years what the emptiness in my local Borders foretold.

    I never liked the big box model, whether it be book stores, music stores, grocery stores or publishing companies. I’m much happier with the small, indie business model than the conglomerate. Which is one reason I’m moving to publish my writing in e-books. I am sad though, at the thought that soon it might be hard to find book store, can hardly imagine it. I hope you’re right that new, community centered stores might spring up. But that will depend on publishers changing their archaic business practices.

    I’d like to see the big box groceries go away too, to be replaced by neighborhood stores again. Should be possible – after all, we’re never going to get our lettuce, Dave’s Killer Bread and gorgonzola cheese sent “on demand.”

    • Joel Friedlander

      I’m with you, Nancy. I was never enamored with warehouse stores, but I shop there because they’ve taken over. I’d love to see small stores find a way to add enough value to become thriving businesses, especially bookstores.

  4. Joseph

    “The times they are a changing”(Bob Dylan), that is for sure. I just wanted to leave a comment to thank Mr. Friedlander for his work. I am new to his blog and appreciate his voice amongst all the misinformation flying around the internet. As I am in the midst of writing my first book I am in need of good advice and information. Thank you sir. Perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of your review when it’s complete.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Joseph, great to have you as a reader. If you have any questions about your publishing project, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to help out.

  5. Ronnie Moore

    Wow is right! Our Borders in Boulder is closing. It is sad to watch. If you listen to the talk inside the store, people are sorry it is closing. Chain stores are not usually welcome in Boulder but Borders seemed to be different. Boulder Bookstore in downtown Boulder (a locally owned store) is an icon of Boulder. Hopefully it will stay open for a very long time….

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ronnie, we used to have numerous bookstores in San Rafael, and we are now down to none. Our county has one major independent store left, a big new Barnes & Noble and that’s about it. This is one of the reasons I think the demise of a chain like Borders might create a crack in the market where a new, small, community-oriented bookstore could thrive, especially if they found a way to sell more than books. We’ll see.

  6. Tony Eldridge

    Wow- you really hit the emotion buttons on me. I wrote The Samson Effect sitting in the Cafe of the Mesquite, TX Borders. A bookstore that big would always be there, right? Just last week I was e-mailing pics to my wife of tables and book cases that were for sell. I actually found the table I sat at when I wrote my book. I debated, but in the end I paid my respects and moved on, leaving the table behind.

    I’ll miss not being able to visit the home that gave birth to my first book.

    • Joel Friedlander

      It was an oddly moving experience, amidst the stacks of sale books and garish signs. I guess we’ll just have to start a new history in a different location. Thanks for contributing your experience, Tony.

  7. Michael N. Marcus

    Tribes have always been moving on. That’s how tribes survive. From Egypt to Canaan, from Asia to Alaska, from England to New England, from Spain to the Netherlands, from the Confederate States of America to Liberia, from Germany to Palestine, from Ethiopia to Israel, from Libya to Tunisia, from Borders to Amazon, maybe from Earth to Mars — or beyond.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *