Some booksellers see their stores as cultural institutions, an integral element of their city, like a library or community center.

"Our focus is on creating partnerships in the community — it's the only way to survive," asserts Lanora Hurley, owner of Next Chapter Bookshop in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon, Wisconsin. When Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, visited Next Chapter last month, Hurley got the entire town involved. Restaurants donated food (eat), a local health club hosted the event and offered yoga classes (pray), and theaters sold "date night" packages at a silent auction (love, of sorts). Four hundred people paid $29 to attend; admission included a signed copy of Gilbert's latest book, Committed.

"[Partnerships] double our marketing reach, sometimes triple it," Hurley explains. "And if you're going to say, 'Buy local,' it means putting your money where your mouth is and working with local nonprofits and the local independent community."

Owner Kelly von Plonski shows off her fiction 
section.
Jennifer Silverberg
Owner Kelly von Plonski shows off her fiction section.
Subterranean Books' storefront in the Delmar Loop.
Jennifer Silverberg
Subterranean Books' storefront in the Delmar Loop.

Hurley works with her fellow booksellers, too. Though her relationship with Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company, is informal, every season when publishers send out lists of authors who are going on tour, the pair goes over it together and determines who fits best with a visit to Next Chapter in the suburbs and who'd do better in the city at Boswell.

"It's in our best interests to get authors to Milwaukee," Hurley reasons. "The publishers only send [authors] if they think we can do a good job."


I have a great idea," Furrer tells von Plonski over drinks at the Bleeding Deacon. "If Borders shuts down the store in Brentwood, let's take it over and have the awesomest bookstore ever. It's the best location, and it's huge. You get a part, I get a part, Melissa gets a part for kids' books, Jay and Left Bank can have part, too."

Von Plonski shakes her head and laughs.

At any rate, after Borders announced on February 16 that it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closing 200 stores, the company didn't shutter its Brentwood location (which is among the chain's most profitable). Instead the superstore jettisoned its outposts in Ballwin and at the Mid Rivers and Chesterfield malls.

The Borders bankruptcy racked up some impressive collateral damage. In addition to putting its own booksellers out of work, the company owes creditors more than $1 billion: months' worth of back rent, plus unpaid invoices from publishers and distributors. Penguin USA alone lost $30 million.

"If I'd had any insight, I wouldn't have sold anything to them for Christmas," says Dan Thompson, owner of Big River Distribution, which sells local-interest titles throughout the Midwest. "But they invited me to their fall sales meeting, and I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do: Put books in stores." Thompson declines to divulge how much money he poured down Borders' drain. "These are dark days in the book business," he says. "It's devastating all over."

This isn't the first time superstores have wreaked havoc on the publishing business. Before Barnes & Noble and Borders set up shop in every population center from coast to coast, most booksellers operated like von Plonski: They gauged what they thought they could sell and sent back a handful of unsold books. The superstores turned that model on its head, ordering enormous quantities that they built into towering sales displays, then sent back tons of window dressing, most of which moldered in warehouses or got pulped. The practice incrementally plumped the chains' sales figures — and threw publishers' balance sheets into utter chaos. A title that showed a profit one month would drop deep into the red when the returns rolled in.

The superstores also began to influence what got published — a phenomenon St. Louis-based author Scott Phillips learned the hard way. The Ice Harvest, Phillips' first novel, sold respectably when it was published in 2001. His next two books didn't fare as well.

"When a publisher's thinking about publishing a book, they consult Barnes & Noble," Phillips says. "Barnes & Noble goes to their computer and says, 'Well, this author sold X, Y and Z and descended with each book.' Three books is the cutoff. And if Barnes & Noble isn't likely to order your book, it's not going to get published.

"Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon — they could be selling hardware or potted plants," Phillips continues. "The business model of high profits and blockbusters never applied to publishing before."

Phillips published his fourth novel, Rut, through Concord Free Press, a nonprofit publisher that gives away books in exchange for the recipient's promise to make a donation to a person or organization in need.

The superstores didn't stock Rut, but the indies did. That was reason enough for the author to offer to helm a monthly writer's workshop at Subterranean.

Even as people have been buying fewer books, one segment of the publishing business is growing.

E-book publishers don't have to pay for printing, shipping or warehousing, yet they can charge about the same for an e-edition as they would for a trade paperback. And here, Amazon dominates.

"Amazon is doing to Borders what they did to independents ten years ago," says Pudd'nhead owner Nikki Furrer. "Amazon has a frightening monopoly on the written word," adds Left Bank's Kris Kleindienst, recalling how in 2009, during a rights dispute with an e-publisher, the online monolith logged in to customers' Kindles and erased the contested titles.

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