For the book-lovers among us, it’s hard to believe that Borders Books and Music has been defunct now for over ten years. It was one of the first and most obvious high-profile casualties of Amazon, the latter of which nipped away at the revenue stream of what had previously been the nation’s largest bookstore, peaking with 1,250 locations in 2003–locations of various sizes and target markets (including Borders Express, Borders Airport, Borders Outlets, and, from 1995 onward, the formerly independent chain Waldenbooks). Founded in Ann Arbor in 1971, Borders’ most famous model was the large-format “category killer” corporate bookstores that often featured well over 20,000 square feet of books, a separate section for music (mostly CDs), and a coffee café. Though never equal to the books in terms of floor space, the music section was certainly bigger than a kiosk, and the advancement of technology allowed customers to access CD’s for browsing on headphones in much the same way they could skim books at the conveniently placed easy chairs or at the café.
Browse, relax, read, sip coffee. Borders Books and Music may not have been the first to explore this hybrid bookstore-library-cafe approach to book buying, but it was instrumental in making it mainstream. Unlike Waldenbooks, which generally operated as a smallish inline tenant within malls (comparable in size to specialty clothing stores), these Borders category killer locations were big enough to serve as minor anchor in shopping centers or occasionally malls, which prior to 1990 was atypical for a bookstore. But then, Borders morphed into a multi-purpose entertainment retailer, encouraging people to linger more than they might in the more conventional Waldenbooks, which had led the market in chain bookstores in prior decades. Borders Group, Inc. owed its preeminence through the combination of its large-scale Books and Music locations and the smaller, more established Waldenbooks.
As bookstores go, Borders had refined this great business strategy well into the early 2000s, when the company increasingly explored opening its large-scale locations in revitalizing downtowns, often near the familiar chains of a downtown mall. But the paradigm wasn’t sustainable. Borders Books had to countenance Amazon’s massive online infrastructure, with every name and title available within few days of shipping, after just a few mouse clicks. By the mid 2000s, Amazon proved more desirable than the category killer bookstore that Borders and its biggest competitor, Barnes and Noble, helped to proliferate. (Let’s not forgot that Amazon.com started as primarily an online bookstore. Everything else came later. Amazon effortlessly blended new releases with book resale, the latter of which were available at rock-bottom prices; Borders did not offer much in the way of a used bookstore element.) Despite row after row of titles in the massive, often multi-level emporia, the selection within a bricks-and-mortar corporate bookstores is still finite, and the presence of a coffeeshop cafe, music catalog, DVDs, and various other novelties/stationery (all peripheral to the focus on books) wasn’t enough. Amazon’s prices were often lower, even when excluding shipping costs. Unless a customer needed the product right away, more of them were willing to wait 72 hours for Amazon’s savings. And how often is a book purchase an emergency? So Borders filed to liquidate all of its remaining 400 stores in July 2011, five months after filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Barnes and Noble acquired the Borders customer list in for online promos and subscription services.
The once mighty chain, whose presence was almost certain in any metro over 250,000 (and some smaller), is a fading memory among Boomers, Gen Xers, and older Millennials. And its demise no doubt prompted panic among its biggest competitors. Barnes and Noble, an older resource for bibliophiles (founded in 1886) that slowly evolved into a recognized category killer to compete with Borders, has largely managed to hold its own all these years. It purchased B. Dalton’s Booksellers, the inline staple of malls to compete with Waldenbooks, way back in 1987. And it probably helped that B&N was less aggressive in its expansion than Borders, but Borders’ biggest blunder was its failure to explore a prototype e-reader, since the corporate bookstore collapsed less than a year after Barnes & Noble introduced its Nook, which in turn competes with the Kindle that Amazon introduced two years earlier (in 2007). Barnes and Noble also has an adjacent publishing arm that specializes in low-cost reprints of classics (public domain) or obscure, out-of-print titles. Borders conversely attempted to explore submarkets in toys and digital photography; these didn’t take hold.
The American corporate bookstores, with Barnes and Noble as its current reigning champion, remain fraught amidst the marauders from Amazonia. The company has steadily closed underperforming stores and has reduced staff on hand at the remaining ones. Just five years ago, it appealed for investor/buyers, ultimately finding one in an asset management company that rescues established but declining brands. And the onset of COVID-19 allowed the company to transform a crisis into an opportunity: closing most of the B&N stores for many months during COVID, the leadership at Elliott Investment Group revamped them for a more modern look and repositioned merchandise to target what was most likely to sell, based on local preferences. It seems to have worked: by featuring books that appeal to kids and teens (particularly graphic novels and Manga), the company saw surges in sales, no doubt enhanced by the fact that not all teenagers have access to credit lines necessary to buy through Amazon.
Which brings us where we are today.
This Barnes and Noble location at Gaithersburg, Maryland (a suburb of Washington DC) reveals the vigorous efforts of a corporate bookstore to remain viable amidst Amazon and e-readers. (Incidentally, B&N’s Nook generally lost the e-reader battle to Amazon’s Kindle, enough that leadership spun Nook off to a separately run business in 2014, which does seem to have shored things up somewhat.) But the bricks-and-mortar corporate bookstores are the focus here, and, in this case, it’s difficult not to notice the shift in how Barnes and Noble deploys its floor space.
I first noticed Barnes and Noble to be a competitive repository for board games back in around 2016, when I struggled to find what I wanted at the more mass-market, all-purpose department stores like Target, Walmart, and Kohls. The selection was small, but B&N seemed to specialize in niche, “brainy” strategy-minded games, often with an educational component, compared to games that reward victory to those with quick reflexes, or purely chance. Historic game manufacturers like Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers were hard to find at B&N back then, but the game kiosk would easy supply expansion packs from the Catan (Settlers of Catan) series, as an example.
But it was just a kiosk in 2016. How things have changed.
Today, the area marked “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) reflects a single genre of games, and it is bigger than the entire gaming section back in 2016. The revamped Barnes and Noble also stretches further into amusements, featuring what I’d have to describe as children’s toys.
Note the elaborate Legos at the front. Yet these shelves stand just outside the de facto children’s section.
A children’s section that is larger than I remember. Meanwhile, along another wall, the music section, long in retreat, seems to have enjoyed a resurgence.
But notice the shelving behind the records: puzzles and Lincoln Logs.
And a sizable portion—nearly half—of the music section is video, mostly DVDs.
I’d wager that only a little over half of the leasable space at this Gaithersburg Barnes and Noble features books—a number that’s even lower for those that don’t consider Manga or increasingly popular American graphic novels to be books. I only posit this distinction because graphic novels generally straddle the aesthetic line that separates text-driven books from comic books, and comic book retailers often separate themselves categorically from corporate bookstores. Most comic book store chains are regional: a handful of locations that cluster around a large metro and its smaller neighbors. Nothing among comic book retailers remotely approaches the scale of Barnes and Noble. And, though Manga’s astronomical growth has prompted Barnes and Noble to capitalize upon the genre, even while many big-name American comic book brands (particularly DC and Marvel) are in perpetual decline, most search engines today continue to conflate Manga, graphic novels, and short-form, series-oriented comic books—all sold in the same stores. And Barnes and Noble gets listed far below the local comic book suppliers.
The lenient, decentralized organization of space represents a sea change for Barnes and Noble, which historically has enforced a heavily structured staging across all branches. The localization based on customer preferences no doubt explains the slipshod approach in Gaithersburg—why puzzles are in the music section—but it illustrates the diminishing prominence of books. Truth be told, this Barnes and Noble reminded me of two disparate chain retailers: one is the widely known, recently defunct but currently rebooting Toys “R” Us, which succumbed to Amazon and other online retailers in 2018 after seventy years in operation. Sure, the children’s section at B&N is a fraction of what Toys “R” Us has historically offered, and the ambiance is quite different, with Toys “R” Us preferring a vaulted ceiling, wholesale look in contrast to the carpeted comfiness of Barnes and Noble. But the sub-classification of toys and its growing size certainly gives it a presence on par with the shuttered Kay-Bee Toys, the second largest toy retailer in the 80s and 90s and a mainstay of malls. (Kay-Bee or KB Toys was the Waldenbooks of corporate toy stores, while Toys “R” Us was the Borders or B&N.)
The other chain that this Gaithersburg Barnes and Noble reminds me of is the short-lived chain Media Play, likely to trigger fond memories among Gen Xers and Millennials who grew up in the Midwest, the only region where I believe it had a strong foothold. The photos above prompted recollections of this category-killer chain I had rarely thought about, since I hadn’t stepped foot in one since probably around 1997. Essentially a superstore covering all forms of entertainment—movies/video, music/audio, video games, board games, toys, and books—it emphasized individual titles, contrasting it with Best Buy, which featured titles but focused more on the electronic hardware itself (and no books). Media Play replicated the browse-and-buy approach of corporate bookstores like Borders, but with the warehouse magnitude of a Toys “R” Us. Carpeted, well situated with chairs but not really comfy (no café), The chain grew at the same time that Amazon broke onto the scene, and Best Buy was the reigning champ, at least in terms of a fair selection of cheap music (CDs) or movies (mostly videocassettes). I don’t think Media Play lasted in the Indianapolis market more than three years, though apparently its final locations closed elsewhere in the mid 2000s.
I only mention these largely vestigial old chains because the current business model at B&N seems to be taking an “everything old is new again approach”, and it remains to be seen if this will endure. Catering to the youth market might be shrewd, since children are less likely to have access to the lines of credit necessary to make online purchases. But it’s rare that recycling an old strategy yields enduring profits; after all, it become old-hat because demand waned over time. People are generally willing to wait and get their used books cheaply by mail, especially when Amazon has basically everything under the sun in its warehouses. Even some mom-and-pop bookstores have felt pressure to diversify their inventory. Back when I used to live in Bethlehem, PA, the famed Moravian Book Shop (oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world) continued shuffling its extensive inventory (probably on par in size with some B&Ns). Between 2014 and 2017, Moravian Book Shop reduced its space for books and increased space for home décor, novelty items, stationery, and jewelry. More recently, I learned, Moravian Book Shop sold its operations to the campus arm of Barnes and Noble (Barnes and Noble Education, separate from the commercial bookstores since 2015), so that it functions as the primary bookstore for Moravian College, suggesting a greater emphasis on textbooks.
Piggybacking on the Moravian Mission coming from Bethlehem, corporate bookstores are still exploring any and every means of retaining its viability, which impels me to conclude this discursive article with a reference to the one other sizable corporate bookstore chain: Books-a-Million (BAM!), now the second in the nation behind Barnes and Noble. Much to my surprise, my research taught me that it’s almost as old as B&N, having been founded as Bookland (a name the briefly occupied malls alongside Waldenbooks and B. Dalton’s in the 1980s) by the same Anderson family that currently owns it. Assuming its current “BAM!” name in 1992, Books-a-Million only began growing quickly in the mid 1990s, after Borders and B&N had already disseminated the category killer format with mega-sized locations that featured cafés. This southern corporate bookstore chain is not yet nationwide, lacking a major presence in the West Coast or Rocky Mountain states. But it’s widespread in about 35 states, often targeting markets that B&N might deem too small (i.e., metros under 200,000 people).
It’s precisely this sort of market where I found a surprising location: Hagerstown, Maryland, far enough away that it is decidedly not part of metro DC (at last not yet).
The Valley Mall in Hagerstown, Maryland, may only have appeared to be thriving because my visit was during peak last-minute holiday shopping, on a bitterly cold night a few days before Christmas. But the low vacancies and presence of many nationally recognized chains would suggest that it was a stronger performing mall than most. And it had a BAM!
But, unlike every other Books-a-Million I had seen, this one was not the Borders-sized leviathan. No easy chairs. No café, whereas most BAM! locations have Joe Muggs Coffee. This corporate bookstore in the Valley Mall was small.
If anything, this Hagerstown operation reminded me again of something I hadn’t seen in nearly two decades: a corporate bookstore scaled to the mom-and-pop size. This BAM! was a B. Dalton. It was a Waldenbooks. Two mall chains occupying smaller inline space, both of which began to flounder in the early 1990s, about the same time the superstores of Borders and B&N began to break onto the scene. Apparently Books-a-Million operates under a flexible array of brands: Books & Company, the obscure Bookland, and 2nd and Charles, an all-media resale shop with a small but growing presence, basically a Media Play for gently used items. And, apparently, scaled down versions of their prototype that look exactly like the stuff from the 80s.
The two Maryland operations captured in these photos, located in shopping centers about 45 miles from one another, hardly reflect the status quo for the two chains in question: Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million. But they most likely offer an indication of the direction the corporate bookstores have to go as it continues stretching itself to retain viability. Corporate bookstores may continue a long and healthy reign for many decades to come, perhaps someday including chains whose names don’t begin with B. I like bookstores, large and small, enough that I certainly don’t want them to fail, even as Amazon has tried to open its own bricks-and-mortar locations…and failed apparently. It’s hard to replicate the feeling of browsing the aisles and looking at all those colorful spines. But will the corporate bookstores of 2050 even sell books?