Gayle Shanks has fought a sometimes frightening battle against national book chains for 36 years, so one might expect the independent Tempe bookseller would be overjoyed at news that the goliath Borders is in dire straights.
But that would be like judging a book by its cover.
Sure, Shanks figures the chain’s death would lure its former customers to her Changing Hands store in Tempe.
Yet she sees peril for bookstores, for readers and for the nation’s culture.
Michigan-based Borders is the nation’s second-largest book retailer and its large debts to vendors could take down small book publishers and hurt the surviving ones, Shanks said. That could limit what even the most independent-minded bookseller could offer adventuresome readers.
“I think my biggest concern, really, is what it means for the publishing world and ultimately what it means for diversity and finding a marketplace that will be diminished,” Shanks said. “We will have fewer authors finding publishers for their books. We’ll find fewer books being published and that might in fact mean that only huge, commercially viable authors will find their books going to market. That worries me.”
Borders has stopped payments to some publishers, who have in turn cut off shipments of new merchandise. Published reports include speculation that Borders will be forced to reorganize under bankruptcy protection or that its declining sales, market share and stock value will doom it.
Border’s troubles became more apparent after the holiday season, Shanks noted, when it reported disappointing sales even as most retailers and rival Barnes & Noble saw small to large improvements. Amazon.com would likely benefit from a Borders’ failure, but Shanks finds that troubling, too.
“That’s just the best-sellers and one level below,” said Shanks, the store’s co-owner and book buyer. “Unless you know exactly what you want to read, it takes the adventure and the curiosity factor out of what’s involved with finding a new author.”
Borders was the chain that mostly directly challenged Changing Hands, a store Shanks helped found in 1974 in downtown Tempe. Her initial 500-square-foot store expanded multiple times on Mill Avenue, where, roughly a decade ago, Borders opened a 25,000-square-foot store three blocks from Changing Hands.
The independent store opened a second location on McClintock Drive and Guadalupe Road in 1998, closing the downtown one in 2000. Borders later shuttered the downtown store.
Shanks believes Borders’ woes are a typical example of a chain not keeping up with industry trends — especially electronic readers — and not a sign books are obsolete. She’s seen an interest in people reading, whether its books on paper or on e-readers. Even on a weekday afternoon, Shanks said, Changing Hands can be full of customers.
“We really have been doing fine and 2010 was close to a record year for us,” Shanks said.
Borders and Barnes & Noble overbuilt, she said, adding it’s impossible for them to sell the number of books required to pay rent on all the square footage they occupy in the Valley.
A Borders failure would leave three empty stores in the East Valley, at Superstition Springs Mall in Mesa, at a mostly empty shopping center east of Fiesta Mall in Mesa and at the Chandler Pavilions. By comparison, Barnes & Noble operates five East Valley stores.
It’s unclear who would win Borders’ customers, said Bob Kammrath, a Valley commercial real estate analyst. The consensus was Circuit City’s demise would help Best Buy, he noted, but Target and Walmart turned out to be the big winners. He doesn’t believe Barnes & Noble is robust enough now to undertake any significant expansion into Borders’ former locations.
Kammrath doesn’t see many other chains filling empty spaces in the Valley in 2011, either. But unlike the past years of massive store closings that have hurt or devastated some Valley shopping centers, Kammrath doesn’t expect a Borders’ failure would hurt the market significantly.
“That doesn’t mean all this empty space is going to lease up but at least it’s not going to get much worse,” Kammrath said.
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