Indie Booksellers Create Strategies to Deal With Borders Closings

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Last week’s announcement of Borders’ bankruptcy and the impending closure of approximately 200 locations was national news, but the retail story is being played out locally. While the events brought no joy to indie booksellers (most expressed sorrow at seeing any bookstore close), they’re now dealing with the practical aspects of welcoming former Borders customers to their stores. In anticipation of the closures, ABA member booksellers across the country are both rethinking strategies and promoting membership programs, community discussions, and gift cards to help pave the way to independence.

Soon after the Borders announcement, Roxanne Coady of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut, sent an e-mail to customers noting that “the ubiquitous presence of Nooks and Kindles and digital downloads is all contributing to the world of books changing even faster than most of us have ever imagined.”

In response to those changes, and to determine customer needs and interests, Coady proposed “a series of conversations, in person and online” to explore the questions: “What new service might be helpful? What educational courses? What online capability? What merchandise?” Or, she queried, “is it all about price, ease of delivery, etc.?”

Coady announced there would be two informal gatherings to talk about customer needs and ideas, and at least 25 people have already signed up for each group.

A day after her e-mail went out, Coady told BTW: “I’ve never gotten so many responses. We got more than 200 e-mails. And more than a hundred in an hour.”

Answers to the e-mail were “unbelievably complimentary and grateful to the store,” she said. “That’s the good news. The other good news is some very interesting ideas and possibilities came up. Some people want us to drop ship, which we do. So, it was also a reminder of how some don’t know what we already do.”

Other responses said discounting was important, and though Coady wants to make all of her customers happy, deep discounting isn’t her business, she said. “I’ve always felt we’ve got to stick to what we’re good at, and it might mean that we’re not everything to everybody. The question is, Are there enough customers who want what we’re good at?”

One customer asked the bookstore to download a book and put it on a flash drive. “It’s a reminder that we can do more about making it easier for customers to buy,” said Coady, adding that she plans to remind customers that they can download digitally.

“I’ve written back to everybody to at least thank them for writing,” she said. “I’m making a booklet of comments and will circulate it to staff to show how much they’re appreciated. We’ll sort out ideas and add them to the list of ideas that we’re coming up with. We’ll look at how easy they are to implement, what the impact will be, what they would cost, and how much we think they’ll create in revenue.”

Coady’s e-mail was sent on the spur of the moment , but her approach was “very deliberate,” she said. “I did not try to sell them anything. I didn’t mention any sales.”

At Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose, staff posted “An Open Invitation to Washington, D.C. Area Borders Customers” on the store website. The letter lamented the loss of an “important member of our D.C. bookselling community.” But, it noted, in the wake of the Borders closing, Politics and Prose was extending a “special, limited-time opportunity to booklovers in our area in the hope that they might discover a new home with us.” Borders customers are invited to exchange their Borders Rewards card, for a three-month P&P membership, which entitles them to discounts on bestsellers, author event titles, and the March Storewide Member sale. (A one-year P&P membership usually costs $25.)

The letter also stressed that e-books purchased from P&P can be read on the Borders e-reader, the Kobo, and that booksellers were available to assist with downloads.

At Bookshop Santa Cruz, owner Casey Coonerty Protti posted an open letter to the Santa Cruz community that acknowledged the difficulty of losing an area business and asked what Bookshop Santa Cruz could do to meet the community’s needs. “With your ongoing commitment, we want to build on the last 44 years so that we can last another 44 years in the heart of downtown.”

The bookstore plans to hold additional meetings on how best to respond to the Borders closure, but staff has already outlined the first phase of their response, said Connerty Protti, who shared the following details with BTW:

1. We want to highlight our discounted bestsellers and offer a few special discounts to the public just after [the local Borders] closes to remind people that you can get deals at Bookshop Santa Cruz and not just the big box chains or online. In addition, we are going to focus on publicizing remainder titles more than before.

2. We are immediately going to increase our magazine draws and bolster inventory in certain sections where we might see immediate results (like travel).

3. We plan to expand our YA section to draw in customers that were enticed by [Borders’] expanded section.

4. We plan to do advertising in some new outlets that aren’t where our core customers focus their attention (like our local paper). We also plan to do more extensive outreach for the summer months to tourists, who might have ended up at Borders because they know it from their hometown, and they can now come to us.

5. We are going to create renewed focus on our customer service. People are going to choose to come to us instead of Amazon only if we create the most friendly and enticing experience in our store. This starts with staff interaction and building customer relationships.

In Pasadena, California, Vroman’s is offering 200 former Borders customers the chance to turn in their Borders Member Awards card for a $20 Vroman’s Gift Card and the option of signing up for the store’s e-newsletter and the Vroman’s Gives Back program.

“We announced the promotion every time the press interviewed us about the Borders bankruptcy, so we got great publicity on the television news – multiple channels, for a few days!” Allison Hill told BTW. “We also publicized our promotion online (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) with the hopes that it would essentially go viral on its own. And the response has been great.”

Hill said that about 80 people have turned in their Borders cards. “The best part is that the press doesn’t mention the Borders stores closing without also mentioning Vroman’s! It’s a sad thing whenever any bookstore closes, and the Borders’ closings are no different. But we are seizing the opportunity to help their customers find a new bookstore home with us.”