Archives For Borders

In June the Associated Press reported that Barnes & Noble’s future may be bleak. Its stock dropped 17.1% from the previous quarter. It reported a loss of $118.6 million with a 7% drop in overall revenue. William Lynch resigned as CEO and the company announced the end of Nook production.  Will Barnes & Noble, the last remaining large scale book store, survive the current retail climate?

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's Grilled Cheese

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s Grilled Cheese

Far beneath the surface, in the tunnels underneath the Wild Hunt, we contemplated the fate of Barnes & Noble. There was more at stake here than just another superstore filing for chapter 13. Personally speaking, I bought my first witchcraft book from a Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue in New York City. For many people, book stores are access keys to the world. Sometimes that key is even accompanied by a cappuccino and good conversation.

So, here we are discussing the possible end of Barnes & Noble, the last of the large scale book sellers. What would a future without the bookseller look like? Would our access to metaphysical and holistic literature become limited? Would the publishers of such texts disappear without large scale distribution?

In order to get a clearer glimpse at the situation, I took the question directly to industry professionals working within the metaphysical book market. I spoke with Bill Krause at Llewellyn, one of the oldest metaphysical, holistic and spiritual book publishers in the industry. Based in Minnesota, Llewellyn has been successfully operating since 1901. Then I contacted Candace Apple, the owner and operator of Phoenix & Dragon, the largest metaphysical book store in the Atlanta metro area.

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I asked publisher Bill Krause the question at hand, “would the loss of Barnes & Noble affect Llewellyn and, if so, how?”  He responded:

Barnes and Noble is an important trading partner and we are happy for the relationship we have with the people there. They are certainly feeling the changes and challenges of the publishing business but despite the prognostications of the “doomsdayers” we don’t see them going away any time soon.  

He continued on to say that:

We already have experience with the demise of a major trading partner. Borders and particularly Walden [were] big customers for Llewellyn. There is no denying it was a blow but the reality is the market for the kinds of information we provide does not die with the bookstore chain. It moves to where people are most comfortable shopping. It can be on-line at Amazon or Llewellyn.com or a host of other websites.

If Barnes & Noble did falter, Llewellyn would certainly feel a lull or a dip in its revenue stream but over the long haul, it would be able to compensate, as it did with the loss of Borders.  Krause explained that Llewellyn is more adaptable than any of the big six publishing houses. Why? Llewellyn serves a niche market with a focused output. As such it can readily, “move to where people are more comfortable shopping.”

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Photo Courtesy of Elysia Gallo, Llewellyn

Krause also explained that Llewellyn’s ability to thrive for over 100 years has been rooted in its “history with the small stores.” He notes:

Llewellyn is fortunate to have long-standing relationships with the many fine metaphysical and independent stores across the country. Many of these relationships predate the advent of the superstore. We have seen this business grow by double-digits since Borders was shuttered. 

The publisher prides itself on these relationships. Not only does it keep in close contact with the stores, it also offers mutually-beneficial marketing programs such as Llewellyn Week. This particular program, for example, brings renowned Llewellyn authors to the stores for various events. This serves the author and publisher while also driving traffic into the store. It’s a win-win-win situation. The most recent Llewellyn Week was held at Namaste in New York City and the next will be held at Mystic Journey Bookstore in Venice, CA.

After speaking to Krause, I turned to Candace Apple, one of these local shop owners.  Phoenix & Dragon has been in business since 1987, supported by Apple’s hard work, time, heart and money. I asked her the same question:  How would the loss of Barnes & Noble affect your business?

Candace Apple

Candace Apple

Her answer was unexpected. Apple explained that brick-and-mortar superstores, like Barnes & Noble, are not competitors. Where those type stores are generalists, she is a specialist. When a reader can’t find a specific metaphysical book in a Barnes & Noble, the store clerks send them to Phoenix & Dragon. The superstore’s local presence benefits her and other independent, specialized book merchants.

Like Krause, Apple lamented the loss of Borders in 2011. The superstore played home to many Pagan meet-up groups who would then shop Phoenix & Dragon for their needed reading material. Now those groups don’t exist and Barnes & Noble hasn’t picked up the slack.  Despite the loss, Phoenix & Dragon only suffered a small dip in revenue.

Apple emphasized the need for versatility in the changing market. She saw the “writing on the wall” years ago.  She said:

Some 20 years ago at the American Booksellers’ Convention…I attended one of the early discussion panels on online sales. As the floor opened for questions, a publisher got up and stated, “With the internet, we won’t need bookstores anymore because we will be able to sell our books directly to the consumer.”  Then an author raised his hand, “Well, with the internet, we will be able to sell our books directly and we won’t need you publishers or bookstores anymore.” I [as a store owner] raised my hand and said, “My customers come into my store to experience that serenity and energy they receive there.  They want to take that energy home with them.  Perhaps I will be selling them rose quartz hearts to take home to hold that energy and will not need either of you.”

She added:

As it came to pass around 2009, many [independent] bookstores around the country experienced a 50% decrease in book sales. Online discounted sales were going strong. By that time Phoenix & Dragon Bookstore had expanded into numerous categories of transformational tools and when my book sales dropped by 50%, I only lost 15% of my overall sales.

That 15% loss was to Amazon, Apple’s biggest competitor, even to this day. Consumers visit her bookstore, use her bathrooms, enjoy her air-conditioning and then leave to purchase a book online for a discounted price. As Apple said, when they do that “they [are making] a choice of what they want their community to become.”

Phoenix & Dragon Bookstore

Phoenix & Dragon Bookstore

Krause also lamented this popular consumer behavior. Llewellyn values its small retailers which it sees as its backbone. He noted that many of the metaphysical shops like Isis in Denver have actually turned to online sales as a result.

Apple and Krause both recognize the continued instability in the publishing industry. But they are lucky. Their companies are flexible due to the almost grass-roots nature of their business models.  Both will continue to thrive with or without Barnes & Noble.

However, there are other complications and difficulties that plague the publishing world. One of these is the increasing popularity of self-publishing. For Llewellyn, it’s a brand new type of competition and for the independent retailer it presents a marketing challenge. Tomorrow, I will return to this discussion to look closer at self-publishing with comments from Bill Krause, Candace Apple and several published Pagan authors.

Minnesota newspaper the Star Tribune does a profile of local business Llewellyn Worldwide, the largest publisher of Pagan and metaphysical books. In the article owner Carl Weschcke addresses the recent collapse of Borders, which cost the company half a million dollars, saying they’ve managed to stay profitable.

Carl Llewellyn Weschcke with author John Michael Greer

Carl Weschcke with author John Michael Greer

The company has weathered the Great Recession despite losing $500,000 in the Borders bankruptcy, Weschcke said. He credited stringent controls put in place by his wife, and company president, Sandra Weschcke, for keeping the company profitable despite the Borders loss. Their son Gabe Weschcke is Llewellyn’s vice president. The company ended its 2011 fiscal year June with $15 million in sales. “For every change, there is opportunity,” Weschcke said. “The main thing is to recognize change and be flexible and say that change is not bad. The only things that are bad are taxes.”

The article also discusses plans to expand more into fiction, and the central role the business plays to metaphysical booksellers. Quote: “Joseph A. Amara, vice president of business development and an owner of Magus Books in Dinkytown, said that Llewellyn is “one of the great pillars” of its industry.” Considering how close-lipped the company is about its finances and internal workings (they wouldn’t talk on-the-record to me about the Borders closure), its nice to get some news from a company that’s so central to the Pagan economy.

On July 22nd the bookstore chain Borders started the process of closing its 399 remaining locations. This move was long predicted by industry watchers as the once-mighty chain wobbled in the face of Amazon.com’s rise (a company it once outsourced to) and costly missteps in non-book merchandise. The last few weeks of media coverage has featured a mixture of fond reminiscences, 20/20 hindsight analysis,  and predictions for the future of the book-selling industry. Many of the predictions haven’t been too cheery, for example, the investment site The Motley Fool predicts that Barnes & Noble will ultimately suffer the same fate, noting that “just because B&N will be the last one standing doesn’t mean that it will be standing for long.” Even if the Borders closure is the last domino to topple as the retail book market restructures itself for a post-ebook and post-Amazon world, that development alone could have far-reaching and possibly disastrous consequences for businesses that cater to modern Pagans.

The Borders Closure and Pagan Publishers

One of the most obvious ramifications of the Borders closure is the elimination of bricks-and-mortar booksellers willing to carry Pagan, occult, and metaphysical titles. At the beginning of 2010 Borders operated 508 superstores in the United States, plus several more “Borders Express” and Waldenbooks outlets in malls and airports. As more than one reporter has pointed out, in some areas Borders was the only significant bookstore within driving distance. Or as a recent NPR report put it, “an entire arm of book sales has been amputated.” No matter how healthy or solvent a publishing business is, that much reduction in retail space is going to hurt. Worse still, at the time of the Borders bankruptcy filing they owed nearly 300 million to its creditors. One of those creditors was Llewellyn Worldwide, the largest publisher of Pagan and metaphysical books. In its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing Borders revealed that it owes Llewellyn over half a million dollars.

As large as Llewellyn may be to the Pagan community, it’s still relatively tiny compared to the larger publishing houses, and losing that much money has to hit hard. I contacted Llewellyn for comment, but there has been no official response. However, I was able to speak with author Donald Michael Kraig, who has worked extensively with Llewellyn, and speaking solely as an individual, offered his take on what some of the ramification of the Borders closure may be.

“As an author, I don’t get paid until my publishers are paid. I probably won’t directly see the loss in “take backs,” although my royalties will undoubtedly be smaller. Those who self-publish may have a different experience and to them (and small publishers) I hope your losses, at best, are small. My guess, however, is that this will hurt the “bottom line” of some publishers and may have a worse effect on a few very small publishers. This is what happens in business.”

The second-largest Pagan and metaphysical publisher, Red Wheel / Weiser, is also owed money by Borders. Though less than Llewellyn, it is still over $200,000. Again, not insignificant for a company their size.

Jan Johnson, Publisher at Red Wheel / Weiser, responding to my questions via email, says that little should change at their company due to the closing of Borders.

“We’ll, of course, miss the stores and the sales from the books they’ve been carrying. Borders supported many of our titles. We don’t expect it to have a direct affect on the number of titles or authors we sign. Borders closure is another indication of the changing way people find and buy books. In order to succeed as publishers, we need to communicate even more with our reader communities.”

A third Pagan publishing company, BBI Media, which produces the popular magazines Witches & Pagans, SageWoman, and Crone, has also been hard-hit by the Borders liquidation. Publisher and editor Anne Newkirk Niven bluntly explained to me how hundreds of outlets disappearing directly impacts the company’s bottom line.

“The cataclysmic news of the final bankruptcy and liquidation of the Borders bookstore chain (resulting in an immediate and pressing gap in our cashflow) rocked me back on my heels just as I was setting down to write the editorial for the 25th anniversary issue of SageWoman. In an additional irony, just as Borders was announcing its liquidation, copies of the current issue of Witches&Pagans were rolling off the presses — thousands of which are now sitting on the dock at our printer, with nowhere to go.

The immediate loss — due to the six-to-ninth month gap between distribution and payment of newsstand copies — caused by the Borders collapse is likely to come in between $18,000 and $30,000. Like many other independent titles, this is a clear and immediate threat to our continued existence. Our plan — identical to the one we rolled out in 1997 when magazine distributor Fine Print went bankrupt owing us a similar amount — is to go directly to our readers, and ask them to donate enough to get us over the hump. In 1997, our readers generously donated to keep SageWoman going, and we hope that when we roll out a full-scale fundraising effort in September, our readers will respond again.”

Niven called this event a “body blow” but seemed optimistic that readers and supporters would rally to help save periodicals like SageWoman, which have become an institution to many in the Pagan community. The company also sounded a hopeful note in their recent initiative to branch out into digital editions of their magazines. The Wild Hunt will be following up on BBI Media’s fundraising initiative, checking back in with Anne Newkirk Niven once it launches.

Assuming that the two largest publishers of Pagan-oriented books, and the largest publisher of Pagan periodicals, are able to weather this storm and come out largely unscathed, there are some troubling forecasts ahead. Science fiction and horror author K.W. Jeter recently pointed out that the prevailing lesson some are taking from the Borders closure may be that it carried too many books, and spent too much time catering to the “long tail” that the Internet thrives in accommodating. This is echoed by another genre writer, J. A. Konrath, who predicts that the “midlist is going the way of the dodo.” For those not up on the publishing-world lingo, “midlist” books are titles that are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication. Should Barnes & Noble decide to cut back on its midlist in a post-Borders book market, that could mean metaphysical/New Age sections that are dominated by titles like “The Secret” and  Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth,” and little else. For many Barnes & Noble stores, this is already nearly the case.

Can Independent Stores Bridge the Gap?

While some are mournfully singing eulogies for Borders, others point out that it wasn’t too long ago that the chain was seen as a villain that many wished doom upon. During their ascent in the 1990s book superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble put many small independent bookstores out of business, and many more nearly so, by offering convenience, big selections, and oftentimes deep discounts the smaller (often niche) stores couldn’t match (illustrator/cartoonist Alison Bechdel famously fictionalized this process in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”). Now that Borders is closing, many are wondering if independent booksellers will benefit, or even grow, in this environment. Jan Johnson at Weiser, when asked about the future of the esoteric bookselling market, said that  “we love it that there are still independent shops who specialize in selling esoteric books, and we’ll continue to support them. We also really like getting feedback and ideas from them.” Will we see independent Pagan and esoteric bookstores rise to fill the gap(s)?

I asked David Wiegleb, current owner of Fields Book Store in San Francisco, an esoteric bookstore that’s been a fixture in the Bay Area since 1932, for his perspective on how the Borders closure will affect business.

“In the short term, we’re seeing some new customers as well as customers returning who we may not have seen in a while. In San Francisco, not only are the Borders stores now closed, but there are no longer any Barnes and Noble stores. This recent uptick for us is certainly welcome, but because of the larger economic and cultural effects our business is still down from prior years. Our challenges are by no means past. There is an opportunity for us to market ourselves to the larger neighborhood as a place people can special order books in any subject and get them usually in only two days. We already carry the Bay Area Bestsellers, and a fair number of customers use us as their “special order” store now. In the medium term, I’m concerned about the ripple effects on publishers and distributors. I’m sure the losses they have incurred with the Borders closing will hit many of them hard, some perhaps fatally, and will impact past and future title availability, as well as pricing. Amazon has already driven list prices up with their demands for deep discounts. This will certainly impact what we can offer.”

Wiegleb also expressed concern that the “next generation will lose the basic cultural experience of browsing in a brick and mortar bookstore,” noting that “more than 1200 Borders and Waldenbooks” have been closing since 2003. Wiegleb’s experience of a recent increase in customers isn’t isolated, other news reports have noted this experience from independent bookshops across the United States. Linda Bubon, an owner at Women and Children First in Chicago, admitted to having “a little happy bookseller who’s jumping up and down” now that “we have this behemoth off our backs.” However, the concerns brought up by Wiegleb are also present. A recent Sacramento Bee report zeroed onto the challenges of growing independent bookstores as more and more people turn to Amazon.com and ebooks,  quoting Mike Barnard, board president of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, who pointed out that “stores that are still left are stressed,” and that “the down economy affects everybody.” Indeed, many reports on metaphysical bookshops I’ve read in recent years have focused on shops trying to stay afloat in a tough economy, in addition to the challenges of the modern bookseller.

One additional issue for those looking to independent Pagan-friendly shops picking up the slack in a post-Borders world is that there aren’t that many robust Pagan/occult/metaphysical bookshops around. The vast majority of Pagan-owned shops carry only a small selection of books, often bought directly from Llewellyn, fewer still carry Pagan magazines. Books are a high-overhead item, and don’t turn the profit that statues, jewelry, stones, herbs, or consignment items often do. I’ve witnessed first-hand how even a single bookshelf full of books can become a fiscal liability for a shop that is barely making ends meet. High-quality esoteric bookshops like Fields Book Store in San Francisco, or independent booksellers like Powell’s in Oregon that are large enough to have a metaphysical/Pagan section, aren’t as common as anyone would like. Creating a new network of esoteric and occult bookstores, along with bigger independents willing to cater to our communities, will take work and commitment from booksellers, publishers, and consumers.

The Bottom Line

The best case scenario here is that some of our largest Pagan-oriented businesses are able to withstand this massive shift, hold out, and recover; that the larger publishing/book-selling world largely stabilizes, and independent booksellers thrive in a post-Borders world, ultimately creating a more diverse and unique marketplace. A worst case scenario would mean that many of the institutions that have  helped define us and support us would cease to be, or exist as a ghost of their former selves. A situation like this would ripple out, hurting many other interconnected Pagan businesses. Economies, especially those that cater to smaller targeted audiences, are like webs. Pull the wrong strands, and the whole thing could collapse. I’m hoping that isn’t the case, and that something approaching the best case scenario wins out. For that to happen, a renewed and concerted effort to invest our time and money in Pagan-owned and Pagan-friendly business should be a top priority.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be returning to this story, for it’s an issue that’s far larger than I can encapsulate here. I want to touch on ebooks, and epublishers, strategies that Pagan businesses are pursuing to survive and thrive, and how these changes might affect other sectors of the Pagan economy.

Resources

Because I was not able to fully quote the statements of everyone I talked to for this piece, I’m attaching them here as PDF downloads so you can read them for yourself in their original contexts. Statement by Anne Newkirk NivenStatement by Jan JohnsonStatement by David WieglebStatement by Donald Michael Kraig.