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Bookstore of the week: Borders in Pasadena


On Wednesday, Borders Group announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and would close about 200 of its stores. One of those stores slated for closure is the Borders at 475 S. Lake St., in Pasadena, which is our bookstore of the week.

As the morning ticked toward noon on Wednesday, with rain falling intermittently, the Pasadena Borders didn't have the feel of the recently condemned. The shelves were filled, and plenty of people came and went.

Customers sat at cafe tables inside, drinking coffee, reading, talking and working on laptops. Toddlers and their tenders wove through the expansive children's section at the rear of the store. People stood in the newsstand section, flipping magazine pages. A man stopped a staffer to ask a question as phones rang and the staff headsets crackled. On the second floor, a man scoured the graphic novel section. A woman in gray sweatpants gathered up a stack of books from the fiction section and headed down the stairs toward the checkout, passing a father coming up with his teenage son.

The store's enormous retail footprint -- which Borders bankruptcy filing lists as 40,000 square feet -- allowed for the depth of stock that once made Borders a true superstore. In the fiction section, literary favorites such as the National Book Award-winning "Let the Great World Spin" and Booker Award-winning "Wolf Hall" rested an arm's reach from "The Nanny Returns," the bestselling "Roses" by Leila Meacham, James Michener's behemoths and Herman Melville's classics, including a version of his "Bartleby the Scrivener" published by indie stalwart Melville House. Staff picks at the end of bookshelves were almost as diverse as a reader might find at an independent bookstore.

But there were also signs of a kind of shakiness. High bookshelves were unfilled. Near the upstairs entrance (off the parking structure), a good-sized area with plenty of space for tables or shelves simply sat empty. The corner selling music and movies was limited and dusty. A several-shelf section labeled Biography/Autobiography was taken up on one side with multiple copies of the Kardashian sisters' book, shining pink, and on the other by Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" (which is not Biography or Autobiography, of course, but a novel). The upstairs registers were closed. And the women's restroom was covered with tape barring its entrance, with notice that it would be closed indefinitely and directing customers in need to the nearby Macy's.

And, of course, there was evidence of the greater problem. In a row of seats set up for visitors taking advantage of the store's free WiFi, there were more people using their laptops, just like the people in the cafe below.

The rise of online bookselling is said to be one of the major hitches in Borders' giddyup. Although the chain was once neck-in-neck with Barnes & Noble, it has fallen on much harder times than its competitor. "Borders made a number of crucial gaffes including transferring its Internet operations to Amazon in 2001 and embarking on an overseas expansion that swelled its debt," the Wall Street Journal reported. And while Borders Kobo e-reader has been well-reviewed, it wasn't introduced until 2010, three years after Amazon's Kindle and about a year after Barnes & Noble's Nook.

It's possible that another problem for Borders was its expansion beyond books. It used to be a great place to go and buy music -- but big-box music retailers have faced even more challenges than booksellers. How much did Borders rely on selling CDs, and what did that contraction mean for the company? And if all those cute journals and bags once sold, they seem to be less attractive to shoppers these days, gathering dust near the outdated racks of Valentine's Day cards.

But the Borders store in Pasadena is still an entirely good bet for book shopping. That is, for now.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Borders in Pasadena on Wednesday. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

Comments () | Archives (10)

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This is one Border's superstore that should not close. What happens to Border's customers when the Pasadena and Glendale stores are shut down? And I always felt Pasadena was better than Glendale -- more traffic, better customer service, better coffee bar, closer parking.

As for the women's bathroom, I was there on Monday and they seemed to be having problems with a leaky faucet and had to turn off the water because of it. I hope that's the only reason why they barred customers from entering.

I agree with Sylvie. I wish the Pasadena store was not closing. Pasadena and Glendale customers should consider visiting the Arcadia store in the Santa Anita mall as it is not scheduled to close.

They are keeping the one in Arcadia at the Santa Anita Mall open

The Borders' bankrupcy does signal the end of superstores like this. If you go down the list of the stores that will be closed you will find that the largest is about 42,000 square feet and the smallest is 17,000. (larger still than the new Hastings superstores or Booksamillion outlets). The average is about 20,000 to 25,000 square feet, and all are in premium locations with leaes that probably run more than a dollar a square foot per month. A crushing amount of overhead even before you add in the people needed to operate them. Do the math, If 6,000 people are being laid off in 200 stores that's 30 per store. And you can never find a clerk when you need one as it is. And why are these stores so big? To communicate the illusion of abundance by having a hundred thousand titles on display. Except that it is an illusion. Most of those titles have almost no velocity, selling perhaps a copy a year or maybe per month. The real business is the magazine rack, the remainders, and the best-sellers at the front of the store and those departments take up maybe 3,000 square feet at best. If you add the coffeebar and lounge and some event space you can double that, but it was the grand vision of a very large store that killed Borders. Why have all that space if you can't keep it stocked? If you can't pay the bills? They've been closing stores anyway, so this bankrupcy just allows them to break all those expensive leases.

The above mentioned Hastings stores also include the coffeebar, and a big video and music section. Most of them are in small towns. (full disclosure I own some stock in this company and used to have some Booksamillion shares as well. I've done 16 book signings (so far) at Hastings stores in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.)

How many titles do you need to have a store that meets 80 percent of the requests by customers? Given that you can order any other title in print and have it within a week?

If anything, this means that the independents will come back because the chains will no longer undersell for market share or hog the best locations and over-saturate the urban landscape.

um, shop at the indies - keep small businesses alive

Wouldn't it be nice to live in a society where ALL public libraries have the elements and feeling of a Borders book store?

There *are* other options for Pasadena - Vroman's is an excellent bookstore.

As far as Borders stores go, I agree the one in Pasadena is a bit better than some others, but regarding Sylvie's question "What happens to Border's customers when the Pasadena and Glendale stores are shut down?" the answer is simple: go to Vroman's. I similarly commented on the post a while back regarding the Pasadena Barnes & Noble. Vroman's is one of the few indie shops that is big enough to compete head-to-head with the chains without having a specialized niche. They have parking, they have coffee, they have greeting cards, and oh yes, they have a more than solid book selection. It doesn't have the same curated feel as Book Soup or Skylight (or the late lamented Dutton's or Midnight Special) but it certainly is a pleasant place to go.

The entire South Lake Avenue shopping district has been struggling to regain its former stature as a destination for shopping/dining and just strolling the pleasant streetscape. Having Borders close will further put negative pressure on South Lake Avenue and I fear that unless we can get another large tenant in the space, it could exacerbate an already moribund shopping district.

What about the pedestrians? Where are they? The street is empty many times of the day.

Borders Bookstore had plenty of time to improve - Plenty - They saw Amazon's system work, they had the capital from investors, they had excellent locations in Goleta near UC Santa Barbara, Las Vegas corners in Henderson, Nevada, plus Town Center, and across from Union Square in Downtown San Francisco. I could have turned around any one of those bookstores, but the directors were lazy. They saw problems and refused to fix them. With all the creativity surrounding their shelves, they couldn't pick up a book on e-commerce, sales improvements, or entrepreunerial ideas and save the bookstore from bankrupcy. Where are the excuses for such failure when books provide so many solutions to unsolved problems. Hypocrities controled the company. Now the investors are being taken for a ride. Don't even think of asking for a bailout for the failed bookstore. You saw the walls cave in around you and did little to solve the company's internal problems within the store that had answers along its shelves.

Thomas Chi


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