Going Out of Business

The Borders “Going Out of Business” sale has got me wondering what it is about those four words that encourage otherwise rational people to start making horrible purchasing decisions.

I was in our local Borders last weekend, just to see what the sale was all about. The e-mail they had sent out stated that there would be deals “up to 40% off.” Now, I’ve seen enough stores go out of business to know not to take this entirely at face value. And I was right. While there was a very select group of items on sale for 40% off, most things were marked down a mere 10%. It was enough to make me want to stand outside the store and shout, “Haven’t you ever heard of Amazon.com?” at people as they went in!

Now, if you have a Borders gift card to use, I understand why you’re there, and the markdowns don’t really matter. If you don’t use the gift card soon, you’re just out the money. That’s perfectly logical. That’s not, however, the majority of shoppers I saw there, because there was a lot of credit cards, and even some cash, being used, and there’s a logical fallacy in people charging hundred of dollars worth of stuff that they could have gotten for far cheaper, and without having to stand in a line that reaches the back of the store to boot.

It seems like a form of mob mentality, the way people shop. Drive by your local Borders, while it’s still there, and you’ll see what I mean. The parking lots are jammed–you’d think it’s Christmas. Borders is doing more business right now than they know what to do with. People are swarming the stores, and grabbing armloads of books and other items, seemingly without considering how much they’re spending, just lured in by the prospect of a good deal. They’re standing in line for what seems like an eternity–I’m not kidding when I say the line stretched from the registers at the front, all the way to the children’s section in the very back. And I’ve heard reports from other stores of even longer lines. It’s mass hysteria at its finest, all over a savings just barely greater than the tax rate.

On the flip side, perhaps other struggling stores can learn from this craze over the “everything on sale” sign. If Borders had attempted a sale like this before they went out of business, it just may have generated enough revenue to save them. Clearly, where sales are involved, consumers lose all common sense, and don’t stop to think about how much they’re spending, and how much better they could do elsewhere!

The Demise of the Bookstore

I love books and reading. Big surprise, given that I’m classically educating my children using literature as the backbone for pretty much everything we do, right. So, it makes me sad to hear that brick and mortar bookstores are struggling, (even the so-called “big box” stores), and even closing their doors for good.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Amazon. I love their low prices, I love that I can order books from them that I can’t actually find in a bookstore, (which may be part of the bookstores’ problem), I love their customer service, (which is surprisingly good for an online retailer), I love the free shipping. But it’s not the same as going into an actual bookstore.

There’s just something about shopping in a bookstore. The racks of books in front of you, waiting to be opened, perused, and bought. The staff recommendations, pointing you to books you might otherwise have walked right past. The tables of new releases in the front, just begging you to buy a book and be one of the first to read it. All of the different sections of books to explore–travel, literature, cooking, children’s books, and more, just waiting for you to notice when you walk by.

Mitch Albom had a great piece in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press about the imminent closing of the Borders chain. He has a unique perspective, both as an author, and as someone who shopped at the very first Borders store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He writes about the way reading has changed, and therefore shopping for books has changed as well.

His most astute observation, (in my opinion)? People just don’t love books the way they used to. And I think he’s right. Because bookstores today, whether Borders or Barnes and Noble, or others, have split their focus too much. You can now buy music and movies and toys and stationary at bookstores, and in large quantities, not simply as an afterthought off an obscure rack. You can get a whole meal from the cafe, not a simple cup of joe. Bookstores aren’t just about books anymore, which is a huge part of the problem.

Just as Albom observed, there was a charm to those small, dimly lit bookstores of yesterday, crammed full of books, new and used, popular and obscure, big and small. And there were just books in those stores, because that’s what a bookstore should be–not a toy store, or a coffee shop, or a music store, but a store that focuses mainly, (or entirely), on books. There’s an irony in the fact that Borders, a store with simple roots, became so huge that it played a part in many independent retailers closing the doors of their bookstores, is now suffering the same fate.

Maybe people like me are part of the problem. I do enjoy getting a coffee at the bookstore, and have been known to buy a movie there as well. And as much as I love browsing in an actual bookstore, I’m still more likely to order a book online, once I figure out what I want. But maybe, just maybe, if there was an old-fashioned bookstore around here, that sold only books, and had a staff knowledgeable about literature, I might be reconverted to shopping in an actual brick and mortar store.

Summer Reading

If you’re looking for a way to encourage children to read over the summer, and have fun while doing it, there are plenty of opportunities available!

The most obvious–check with your library. Aside from regular story-times, many libraries also offer a summer reading program. If children read a certain number of books, whether weekly, or during the summer in general, they can win fun prizes. Our library, for example, has weekly book logs, (four in total), for toddlers up through grade eight. Upon returning the log, the children receive a prize, (something simple, like a super-ball), as well as coupons for free food–meals at places like Chick-fil-A, or free custard at the local custard place. At the end of the summer, they can get tickets to see the Gateway Grizzlies play baseball, and there are also raffles for various gift certificates, (Toys R Us and Build-a-Bear, to name two), and even Cardinals tickets.

Bookstores also offer fun programs to encourage reading. Borders has the most simple program–any child under the age of 12 simply fills out a book log with a list of ten books read. In return, the child gets to choose one free book from a list. The book list has a good selection of classics, such as Ramona the Brave and one of my favorites, The Phantom Tollbooth, as well as more modern books, like Ballpark Mysteries: The Fenway Foul-Up, and a good range of reading levels, from beginning readers, like Danny and the Dinosaur, up through children’s novels, such as Ella Enchanted.

Barnes and Noble has a similar program, but theirs is a little more challenging. Children in grades one through six, (note the specific age range), only have to read eight books, but in addition to listing both the name and author of each, they also need to make a recommendation as to who would like the book and why. In return, they also get to choose a free book, but they are limited to the selection of books appropriate to their grade level. I found their selection to be a little less appealing, but they do have some classics such as Nancy Drew and James and the Giant Peach. They even offer a few titles in Spanish, which I think is a great idea!

I don’t know if any other national chains offer similar programs, and I’m also not sure if independent bookstores would offer something similar, but it’s certainly worth checking into. Reading for pleasure is a great ability to have, and I’m glad to see so many different ways to foster this skill!