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Ann Arbor Bookstores Without Borders: Physical vs. Online Retail

Borders Book store Ann Abor


If you live in the Ann Arbor area and you’re old enough, you may remember an Ann Arbor bookstore called “Follett’s”. That is my first memory of being in a bookstore, although I must confess it’s a dim memory; I was a wee one at the time. My love for bookstores came a little later, at the original downtown Ann Arbor Borders. As a youngster, and well into early adulthood, I spent countless hours there, perusing the incredible breadth of the store’s selection, and soaking up the expertise of the amazing staff that peopled that original location. If memory serves correctly, there was a grueling test attached to their interview process, and you were very unlikely to encounter a mere clerk when shopping there.

Borders was of course pivotal in the evolution of the book trade nationwide over the last decade. While many will try to paint a simple picture of where Borders went wrong, pinning it all on their failure to adapt to online sales, followed by a poorly executed deal with Amazon, the real story is much more complex than that. Ironically, for several years chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble probably did more to decimate the diverse indy bookstore scene across the country than Amazon ever could have at the time. Part of their growth strategy was based on opening new locations near existing popular indy bookstores, and pummeling them out of existence with artificially low prices. This of course made easy work for Amazon once Borders’ corporate bumbling sent their sales and stock value tumbling, because with fewer niche stores and faltering chain stores, where else was one to go to get a title that wasn’t a top seller?

I was lucky enough to have worked at one of the cooler Ann Arbor bookstores that met its demise during this era. If you live in the area, you may remember After Words on Main Street. It was during my stint there that I realized that in spite of my passion for books and bookstores, I was destined to often find myself at odds with many of my fellow bibliophiles. I recall a title coming into the store that was about the Apple Newton, and the possibility that someday, we’d all be reading our favorite titles on such a device. I thought this was the coolest idea in the world. Long before the term “dead tree edition” was coined, I was smitten with the idea that a tree wouldn’t have to be cut down just so that a major publisher could print too many copies of a book, “remainder” it, and then take it back from the retail stores that couldn’t sell it, just so it could be pulped or resold at stores like After Words. Whenever I wanted to catch a little “stink eye” and some verbal flack from my co-workers, I would just bring up the topic of how cool digital books would be.

So here we are poking further into the twenty-first century, and the results are in. The Evil Empire of Amazon and online sales have finally succeeded in killing the bookstore. Or have they? There are a few things that make this assertion a tired trope. First of all, unless you’ve been living under a rock – you know, like maybe the one at the corner of Hill and Washtenaw  – locally we’re witnessing quite a renaissance of the Ann Arbor bookstore, thanks to great places like Literati, Bookbound, and Nicola’s (the continued existence of which was recently assured under new ownership). And in spite of emphasizing the fact that there’s nothing like a “real” bookstore, they all offer more titles online than in their stores! That’s not a criticism, we think it’s a great thing, because it ultimately gives a book lover more options.

But while we as book buyers are enjoying this refreshing resurgence of local bookstores to browse, there is a slightly darker side to the current state of the book trade, something that is reminiscent of the evolution (some would say destruction) of the entrenched music and film industry over the last 15 years or so. One thing is the ongoing turf battles like the recent one between Hachette and Amazon, or the one a couple of years ago between Amazon and Apple. In both of these scenarios, Amazon typically got painted as the Evil Empire, while the equally profit-driven, soul-less entities on the other side of these business conflicts gets painted as the helpless victim. Which is patently absurd. If one absorbs all the facts, pieces like this one can easily be re-assessed as the shill pieces that they really are.

Another interesting development that’s afoot that is probably even more detrimental to the diversity of available books is the two-fold attack on authors (like us, for instance) who use Amazon’s CreateSpace as a publishing channel. While the ABA’s service “Indiebound” allows local stores to offer an Amazon-like shopping cart to purchase books (local stores Literati, Nicola’s, and Bookbound all use it), they by default block the sale of books published via CreateSpace. Meaning that you probably won’t find any of our titles in these stores’ online catalogs. And worse yet, you are even LESS likely to find our titles on the actual shelves at these Ann Arbor bookstores. Why? Because much like the ABA’s opaque strategy of blocking our titles from online sales, major distributors and publishers have stealthily made it clear that our titles are not welcome on the physical shelves alongside their titles either. This is not information that is readily available via any public-facing documents, but any knowledgeable bookseller will acknowledge off the record that this strategy is a given.

Some of us feel that ultimately this approach is doomed, because rather than competing in a positive way in an evolving market, these retailers are merely shutting out authors who prefer not to sign on to the not-very-lucrative arrangements major houses typically offer new authors. Frankly, we don’t mind; the margins we enjoy on our titles are exponentially greater than the royalties we would receive from a major house, and although we don’t enjoy the benefits of the marketing clout of a major publisher, this forces us to be more creative in our own marketing efforts, and allows us a lot more freedom to do so!

In the end, we’re confident that the dust will eventually settle, and we’ll all enjoy more books at better prices, much as has happened in the music industry. In the meantime, we absolutely encourage you to shop at the awesome Ann Arbor’s bookstores.

And if you want to purchase any of the titles by local authors they don’t stock or won’t even sell online, you can browse those titles right here on our site. At last count, we have over 300 of them!