Saturday, 9 January 2010

What did Borders ever do for us?

We writers spend a lot of time grumbling about the chain booksellers. We don't like the way their stock is largely celebrity crap and bestsellers, we don't like the way publishers have to pay to have titles put in prominent positions or included in 3for2 or BOGOF deals and we are cynical about the booksellers' 'personal' selections. We don't like the way they ignore backlist and midlist, and that the staff are sometimes less knowledgeable than we would like. (We like supermarkets even less - by using popular books as loss-leaders they have stripped bookselling to the bone. One small cheer for Tesco recently referring potential book-buyers to a local independent bookseller, but otherwise they are the leeches of the bookselling world.)

But now Borders has gone, we are bemoaning its loss. Why? Does the loss of Borders matter to children's writers?

The loss of Borders matters greatly to me personally. For many years, I have written in the Starbucks cafe in Cambridge Borders. I knew the staff of the cafe (one was even an ex-student of mine). They would bring me extra, free coffee if they could see my book was going badly. They would make my regular order as soon as I stood in the queue and have it ready by the time I was at the front. I could sit there for hours, collecting books from around the store to work from and drinking one or two coffees, sometimes having lunch there as well as breakfast. I spent many Saturday mornings with coffee, ideas book and muse playing with new possible books. Some were written and sold, some died soon after conception, some are abandoned half-developed but may yet be resurrected. Or maybe now the place of genesis has gone they are doomed to the eternal limbo of unfinished books.

I have probably written in the region of 30-40 books in that cafe. Now, before you throw up your hands in horror at this flagrant abuse of the bookshop, let me point out that if a book proved to be useful enough I almost invariably bought it, even though Borders was the one bookshop in Cambridge that didn't give me a discount. (Heffers/Blackwells - 10%; Waterstones - 10%; CUP - 25%) And, of course, Borders later made money from selling the books I wrote there - it was a symbiotic, not parasitic, relationship.
Borders was also the place I met up with my bints when we were shopping - 'meet you in Borders kids' department/cafe in an hour' - haven't replaced that yet. And of course the meeting often led to book purchases.

Why Borders? Well, Starbucks had large work tables with electricity sockets and, as long as you had a *$ card, free wifi. There was a high level of tolerance (of sitting for hours with one coffee, of taking endless books into the cafe).
But I did not have a blind devotion to Borders. If one of the other bookshops had had a more suitable cafe, I could well have preferred it - it was a choice of this particular Borders over the other local options for reasons of work, not book-buying. The layout attracted students and writers. It was easy to strike up a conversation with someone working on their A levels or revising for their finals, or also correcting their page proofs. For people who work alone all the time, that's a valuable fragment of community.

For my purposes, Borders was often better than the library because (a) I could mix books and coffee and (b) it had the most recent books, while the library was better for older books. (There are good reasons why I often need to refer to the most recent books, so please don't tell me it is inconsistent with what I just said about backlist: many publishers insist books in the bibliography of a children's non-fiction book are less than five years old.) Cambridge University Library has practically everything, but the most recent books are still going through cataloguing and are not available. A lot is on closed shelves, so has to be ordered - no browsing there. Cambridge Central Library has just reopened after being closed for about a millennium. It's good, but too recent to have earned a place in my work life yet. It could still do that.

Does the closure of Borders matter for children's writers in general? I'd say it does, but how much it matters depends on what you write. Some books are chosen largely by browsing - trade picture books and older fiction, for instance. Others are largely chosen by reputation, recommendation or on the basis of marketing. School textbooks and schools and libraries books are often ordered directly from publishers or from intermediaries selling directly into schools and libraries. For browse-buys, Borders was vital. For the last category, it was insignificant.

Sales of some of our books will drop as a consequence of Borders closing, especially in towns where there is not another large bookshop. Many (all?) branches put on events for children - story-telling sessions, signings, readings, tie-in entertainment for launches and films. These helped to bring in customers and sell books - our books. Once in the shop, people bought other books besides those being launched or promoted. Some independents do these events, but many are too small to have much space for them. Amazon is a very useful resource, but largely so for adults, not children (at least not the younger children I write for). Children who would sit on the floor of Borders and look through dozens of books before choosing one will not sit hunting through Amazon to find a book to buy. For many children, no bookshop=no book purchase, or at least no purchase of their own choosing. They may ask for a book they have seen at school, or that a friend has liked, but the serendipitous discovery of a wonderful book no-one else in their world has ever seen needs a browsable bookshop. Even a bookshop with BOGOFS and 3for2s and miles of Twilights and Harry Potters and staff who ask 'how do you spell that?' when I ask for Simone de Beauvoir (OK, that was Waterstones, not Borders - Borders had already closed). If I ask my bints if they want anything from Amazon when I'm ordering stuff, they rarely do, or they can name only one or two books they want. If we go into a bookshop, they come out with armfuls of books.

So I am mourning Borders, professionally and personally. It's yet another loss at the end of a very bad year, the loss of my way of working as well as a bookshop, the loss of a shared workspace at a time when so many shared things are being stripped away. My heart goes out to the staff who have lost their jobs there, of course. I also feel I've lost my job there, even though no-one paid me to turn up :-(


  1. I left Cambridge a couple of years ago, but I too used to spend hours writing in that Starbucks. If friends were looking for me, that's where they'd head!

    And before that, it was Borders in Speke, Liverpool where I wrote most of my PhD thesis and, more importantly(!!!) discovered YA literature. I actually remember the very moment I picked up Lucas by Kevin Brooks. That book made me shift from writing for adults to YA.

    Borders literally changed my life!

    Sounds like staff are on a retainer atm... here's hoping someone swoops in and salvages something... for the staff's sake and for our sake!

  2. Like you I am grieving for Borders - the London main branch had promised me a promotion for the book I've got coming out in August, and I won't get that anywhere else. Also, my daughter lost her job there, three days after she went on maternity leave. No redundancy - she will have to sue them for what she is owed, and no prospect of another job until she's had the baby. Lots of others lost their jobs there just before Christmas too. I know lots of them and they were all really great people who loved books. Bad day for all writers.

  3. Out of the three main high street book chains in the London area, Borders was the only one that never screwed over any of my close relatives' employment rights... which isn't what I'd been led to expect when my bookseller uncle held them out as the Big Corporate Bad when they showed up.

    They also did a lot for local readers' and writers' groups round where I live... and there's one town along the South Coast where at Sunday teatime their Starbucks would have been the only cafe open (my sister and I must have spent hours in there for want of anywhere else to go).

    Definitely to be missed!

  4. I use to go the Borders on Tottenham Court Road. I loved the cafe - it had a nice atmosphere, conducive to writing. The best thing, though, was the fact that you could take unpaid books into the cafe and browse, before you bought, while sipping your coffee! This has been very useful in my 'marketing research' for my unpublished novel; finding out where my book sits in the market and matching up agents with authors. Other bookshops, such as Foyles across the road, do not allow this.

    I always left Borders with several books under my arm - so they always did well out of me!

    By the way, in response to your comment on my British Library blog post - I do like the reading rooms, but haven't been in them for a while. But might try them next time, to add even more variety, intrigue and interest to the writing environment.

  5. Thank you all for sharing your own stories of Borders. I'm glad I'm not alone in liking the place in spite of its corporateness.

    Enjoy the BL, Delilah :-)

  6. I don't miss Borders as a place to go because I've never lived near a branch. I hadn't really heard of them until after I was published and went to sign books in their Cambridge branch (and after coming hundreds of miles at HarperCollins' expense, they only had one copy of my book on the shelf, so my first impressions of them were not great!) But any book store failing is bad news for the business - though maybe surviving independents who used to be near Borders branches are celebrating?

    Sympathy for your lost workspace. Could this be a good excuse to check out all the cafes in town?

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