August 03, 2011
Although I no longer live there, for most of the past twenty-five years I resided in the northern section of Westchester County, New York — first in Bedford Hills and then in North Salem. The main shopping and dining town of that area is Mt. Kisco, where nowadays, I’m told, New York’s current governor can at times be found strolling the sidewalk.
In the Mid-Eighties, however, when we first moved to Westchester from Brooklyn, downtown Mt. Kisco was at the bottom of a long decline. Restaurants would open and close in a year, and the two main shopping streets were rife with vacancies. Not far from the movie theater sat a low-slung windowless Verizon building that lent an entire block in this small town all the appeal of a commercial wasteland.
Then, within a couple of years, Mt. Kisco turned around. Restaurants began to open and stay open. Old rundown stores got replaced by stores and service establishments that had perfected their formulas: Chico’s, Starbucks, Rite Aid, Cosi. They weren’t the ideal candidates for people who might prefer more individual establishments, but they anchored the town’s retail district. Suddenly the streets came alive.
By some miracle, one day on Main Street scaffolding went up in front of the Verizon building. In short order plate-glass windows blossomed in the previously unrelenting brick facade. The store that soon arrived was a Borders bookstore.
This was a time when the superstores were said to be laying waste to the independent bookstore landscape, which is a statement too many took at face value. The reality was far more complicated.
In Mt. Kisco, for example, there had existed a longstanding bookstore that everyone was said to have loved. It was already in deep trouble when it burned and attempted to reopen in a different incarnation, with a lot more floor space devoted to stationery supplies than to books. This was around the same time that Borders arrived, but on a square foot basis I never saw a quarter as many people in that bookstore as I saw every hour in the new Borders.
A few years before that, if I get my dates right, the march of the chains killed off a much smaller store in the nearby town of Katonah. That store was run by a nice old lady whose heart was in the right place, but the last display I recall in her shop window was not of thrillers or mysteries or romances or biographies or cookbooks but — wait for it — a selection of sewing titles. Not to be cruel to the old lady but I ask you: Did the chains murder that bookshop or did it commit suicide?
There are many truly wonderful independent bookstores that survive today, stores like Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., The Tattered Cover in Denver, and City Lights in San Francisco. Mt. Kisco didn’t have one of these bookstores. It had a sleepy little place run by well-meaning people who, for whatever reason, were not giving customers what they wanted.
How do I know? Simple. The second that Borders opened its doors it was packed with customers.
I did hear complaints. Some said Borders’ selection was poor, that the store tilted too much toward music, that the staff were less knowledgeable than expected. To these complaints I would simply say: The foot traffic doesn’t lie.
My wife and I once owned retail stores. (Not bookstores, but no matter.) There is a rather clumsy expression in the retail business: Buyers are liars. Clumsy but true. People will ask the store to carry an item, swearing they’d buy it if only you’d stock it. When you put five units on the shelf in response, you don’t even sell one to the person who made the request. She’s moved on or she already got it elsewhere or she doesn’t like your price.
Successful retailers don’t give you what you say you want; they anticipate what you’ll want tomorrow. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off, but not many can.
Remember all the predictions — not long ago — that e-commerce would be limited because most people didn’t want to type their credit card number into a website? Borders — among its many mistakes — drank that Kool Aid and handed all its online business to Amazon. The managers made some other mistakes, but that really might have been the fatal one, because this is the Electronic Age. Like it or not, that’s where the growth is. Refer anyone who tells you different back to the above rule: Buyers are liars.
Similarly, for three years running we have heard the vocal complaints about how e-books could never deliver the experience of printed books. We know how that one is turning out, too. It’s all over but the shouting. Say it with me one more time: Buyers are liars.
For awhile Borders successfully grew by opening stores. And look who they were competing with at first: merchandisers who thought people would be attracted by a window full of sewing books. But when the competition got oligopolistic, Borders lumbered and stumbled. They stayed in the music business too long, never established a good online beachhead, woke up to e-books too late, didn’t even execute well on the boring back-room stuff.
But before any of that happened, there was the store in Mt. Kisco and hundreds like it. At the back door, piles of remainders arrested shoppers on their way upstairs. At the front door, someone was always coming or going. As a toddler and kindergartner my daughter learned the excitement of discovering new authors in the warm and inviting children’s section of that Borders. My wife and I would line up at checkout (and there was always a line at checkout) with teetering piles of books in our baskets and still reach impulsively for one more thing as the clerk called, “Next customer!”
Borders was never perfect — not even when it was making money. No doubt an expert book retailer — Len Riggio, say — could walk into a Borders and find fault with the layout, the selection, the merchandising, the signage. But for a while there Borders was better than a lot of the business it replaced, notwithstanding the vocal protests. It didn’t just open those windows of the Verizon building and bring life to the street. Because there were more books inside than anyone had ever seen in Mt. Kisco, it opened even more windows to the mind.
If a great bookstore is a treasure trove of possibilities, then Borders was a great bookstore. Barnes & Noble, Amazon and many independents offer up those possibilities, too, of course. And it doesn’t take anything away from those competitors to lament that Main Street in Mt. Kisco may never be the same.
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