Book lovers have watched with dismay as bookstores in and around Redmond disappeared over the past 10 years. Puss ’n Books was a charming store and a great local favorite, but when moved in, Puss ’n Books couldn’t compete. Borders, like other big box stores, could offer a wider and more diverse selection of books as well as music, stationery, a coffee shop, and novelty items. Other independent bookstores, like the wonderful Totem Books in Kirkland, were forced out of business when Barnes & Noble came to nearby Woodinville.
This pattern has repeated across the country, with most independent bookstores giving way to the big chains. Parkplace Books in downtown Kirkland has held on, but it’s been a struggle, and the owners have occasionally relied on support from local authors to meet their obligations.
As an author who has been publishing since the mid-nineties, I’ve been witness to the dramatic changes in how books are published and delivered. In 1997, national distribution companies displaced local book distributors. The local distributors understood regional preferences. For example, Redmond, as the home of Microsoft, is a strong market for science fiction, and local distributors made sure bookstores and grocery and drugstores were well supplied with that genre.
National book distributors, and in particular Borders Books, viewed every book as a national product, without regard for regional interest. As a Borders liaison told me once, “We just give every book a number.” That number determined how many copies of a title would be assigned to each store, and it didn’t vary according to regional interest. This harmed not only the authors of those books, but the readers who might have enjoyed them.
While other chain stores recognized and adapted to the new technology of electronic books—as Barnes & Noble did with its Nook e-reader—Borders was late in understanding how popular e-books would be.
Borders also fell behind Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com in online sales. Amazon has established a worldwide marketplace which is as close to every customer as the nearest internet connection, and this has transformed the way books are delivered, whether through the mail or electronically. Barnes & Noble was swift to develop an online retail presence, but Borders lagged, and by the time the company tried to catch up, it was too late to establish an effective brand.
Now Borders Books & Music will follow the small, independent bookstores into oblivion. It would be interesting to see if a bookstore—perhaps a re-emerging independent one—might step into that Redmond Town Center space.
If it doesn’t, Redmond will have a major shortage of retail locations for new books. That’s a hardship for readers who love to browse the stacks, and it could be happening in all the nearly 400 cities where Borders Books & Music will be closing their doors.