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Bookstore of the week: Borders in Pasadena

February 17, 2011 |  4:03 pm

Borderspasadena

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

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