Is the Death of Borders Really Good for Independent Bookstores?

Some thought the superstore's collapse would bring better tidings for smaller shops. But what's really happened since the chain filed for bankruptcy?


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There was a time when the independent bookstore seemed fated to die: In the early 1990s, chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble began their impressive rollout, and their guiding principle of bigger-is-better drove many independently owned shops out of business. But now, about two decades later, Borders is the one bowing out in dramatic fashion. After suffering from declining sales and missed payments, the 40-year-old chain filed for bankruptcy in February and has proceeded to liquidate its stores. Articles with headlines like "Borders shutdown shifts independent booksellers into the spotlight" and "Borders' demise could pave way for expansion of independent bookstores," claim that the superstore's collapse will bring better tidings for the independent.

Given the fraught history of chains vs. independents, such a prediction is understandable—but is it accurate? Mark LaFramboise is a book buyer at Politics & Prose, an independent shop in Washington, D.C., and he says that the shuttering of the closest Borders earlier this year, during the chain's first wave of closings, has had no discernible effect on business. "Does this herald a renaissance of the independent bookstore?" LaFramboise says of Borders' closing. "Probably not. Put me down in the 'I hope so' category. But stop short of the 'I think so' category." Scott Abel, the general manager of Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in D.C., says his store has not witnessed radical windfall either, though he has certainly spoken with a few customers who mentioned that they used to shop at Borders.

New customers may not have simply fallen on their laps as a direct result of Borders' expiration. But many independents near a closed, or soon-to-be-closed, location are making the effort to attract the chain's former customers, according to Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, a nonprofit trade group that represents about 1,600 independent shops across the country. Independents have flexed their entrepreneurial muscles in a variety of ways: honoring Borders gift cards, extending special discounts, offering space for book clubs that formerly met at Borders, and even running newspaper advertisements in the wake of Borders' closing to remind book buyers of other existing options. "There is the beginning of at least a little evidence in some markets of the country where there was a Borders close by, that the nearby store has picked up on that business," Teicher says. "This is the time to be as aggressive and out-front as one can."

This is admittedly not the exciting story of the hip, humble, hole-in-the-wall independent bookstore booming with business after the downfall of its monolithic, hyper-corporate, faceless counterpart. There's a problem with this narrative: it can be tempting to see the two types of businesses as straightforward antagonists, but in the quickly changing landscape of book-selling, perhaps the superstore and the independent are not enemies but acquaintances that begrudgingly empathize with each other. Teicher says that brick-and-mortar stores—whether they are chains or independents—have come to recognize that they have more in common than they did a decade ago, including a shared rival in the form of online bookselling. Both superstores and independents would argue that currently, "the far bigger competition doesn't come from each other, but from online sellers."

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Esther Yi is a journalist living in Berlin.

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