Borders Books and Music is in trouble. It’s not done well in the rough-and-tumble world of online bookselling, and according to the people who follow such things, is meeting with investors as we speak to decide how it’ll downsize. Signs are not good; the company already announced it would be closing one warehouse, and it’s stopped paying publishers.
All of this is just to say: Borders will almost certainly be closing more stores—potentially all of them—and either of its two remaining locations in the District, in the Golden Triangle and Friendship Heights, could be shuttered (the downtown store announced it was closing back in June). After all, one of the company’s biggest liabilities has been expensive leases, and D.C. has some of the highest rents in the country.
Why has Barnes and Noble fared comparatively better than Borders? Mostly, it has to do with e-strategy. According to publishing industry analyst Michael Norris, Borders blundered by partnering with Amazon.com for its book sales, and the online superstore had no incentive to help encourage brick-and-mortar sales, which Barnes and Noble’s integrated site did much better. Then there was the rewards card mistake: Borders started with a free membership program, which customers didn’t really value. Barnes and Noble went with a paid rewards card with deep discounts, which brought in more in membership fees and paid itself back in increased sales.
The average person walking around D.C., however, doesn’t care so much about all that: The more important comparison is how their respective stores function as public space. On this point, D.C.’s Barnes and Nobles thump its Borders, for reasons that don’t become apparent until you think about why.
I’ve never much liked hanging out in Borders. To figure out the source of that discomfort, I browsed again through its store on 18th and L Street NW. Like its old store on 14th Street, this one is set up with a subterranean level, which you have to enter via a long staircase in the middle of the sales floor. The lower level feels like a basement, with low ceilings and bright fluorescent lights. The shelves are set up in alcoves, which create an unsettling sense of separation from the rest of the floor. Signage is antiseptic and plain; merchandise is piled haphazardly, like you’re in a warehouse. The checkout area is fairly unadorned, reminiscent of a grocery checkout line.
Barnes and Noble, by contrast, is typically set up with a lofted second floor. That does a few things: First, it necessitates a grand escalator, which is a wonderful way of surveying a world of books laid out below. And second, it feels more like a cozy attic, which you’d much rather hole up and read in than a basement. At both its downtown and Georgetown locations, the cafes are upstairs with some natural light; the downtown Borders cafe is tucked away on an interior hallway. In addition, Barnes and Noble puts much more care into its graphics—a serif font conveys bookishness—with mass-produced but still attractive artwork on the walls. Sturdier bookshelves and tables carry at least a whiff of the the old library feeling. This is a bookstore, not a storage unit.
Nevertheless, it will be a loss for L Street if Borders closes. That corridor is one of the city’s most unfriendly, with chain lunch places and glistening lobbies making up the sidewalk frontage. Could Borders’ disappearance leave an opening for an independent bookstore, more along the lines of Politics and Prose? The kind of place that would have staff recommendations, author reading events that packed the rafters, and a non-corporate cafe that sold a full menu of locally produced food?
Not necessarily—indies and chains have different target audiences. But Norris thinks that if a new store actively reached out to Borders’ old customers, it might have a chance of capturing them. Big, glorious, independent—and web-savvy—bookstores like Powells in Portland, Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, and the Strand in New York do wonderfully in large downtown locations. Kramerbooks is nice to have in Dupont, but it’s more of a restaurant, not the kind of sprawling hangout spot with soaring shelves and both used and new inventory.
D.C.’s supposed to be the most literate city in America, for crying out loud. We need bookstore that satisfies those literary urges, without having to hump ourselves up Connecticut Avenue—it’s what a living downtown is all about.