Thank You, Bankrupt Borders, for Triggering This Scene:

The public hearing in Capitola-by-the-Sea should have ended by dinnertime, but so many people crowded into the City Council chambers that speakers were lining up in the aisles long past 1 a.m.

Capitola-by-the-Sea

The year was 1999, and Capitola — a charming coastal village about four miles south of Santa Cruz, California — was about to decide whether Borders Books and Music would be permitted to build a “Titanic-sized” store (22,000 square feet) in the middle of downtown.

If the Council voted yes, as predicted, at least four local bookstores would be wiped out, and this was the reason that people kept getting up to take their place behind the two microphones in the aisles.

And boy, were they mad.

A Big Bag of Garbage

One woman walked up to the stage with her husband and dumped a big bag of garbage in front of shocked City Council members. “We’ll clean this up, but Borders won’t,” she declared, having gathered the trash from the parking lot of the nearest Borders store in Sand City, about 10 miles away.

An independent traffic consultant reported that parking needs for the proposed Borders had been grossly underestimated. The audience gasped at revelations that Capitola’s traffic engineers had used 15-year-old studies, published “long before megabox bookstores like Borders were around.”

A graduate student stated that none of the books required by her classes could be found at any Borders stores in adjacent areas, while all titles were stocked by independent booksellers in the Capitola-Santa Cruz area.

“Borders will always come with false promises,” said another. “They say, ‘Oh, we have 200,000 titles,’ but after a few months, the inventory shrinks to less than half that. ‘Oh, we gear 25 percent of the stock to regional interests.’ That is not true – this is a chain store that makes its money from a formula order in Ann Arbor, Michigan. ‘Oh, we give money to local charities,’ Borders says. Well, a few thousand dollars per store maybe, but that’s far less than contributions made even by Seeds of Change,” a children’s bookstore across the street.

You can read my column that week here about protests ranging from Shared Parking Methodology to loss of riparian vegetation, “impacted” traffic patterns, ancillary-vs.-freestanding cafes and “the outright lies” that Borders and Barnes & Noble were now notorious for telling.

Borders was so confident of a ‘yes’ vote that it hadn’t even sent a representative. After all, most city governments believed the chain’s line: “Doesn’t everyone want more bookstores, not fewer?” Council members were bored with arguments that Borders was a predator, not a bookseller; that it chewed into the local economy; that it cut wages, hours, inventory, staff to the bone.

Maybe all that was true, these officials said, but how could any city council in America say ‘yes’ to one store and ‘no’ to another?

The Bookseller Everyone Waited to Hear

This was the stalemate that froze the proceedings until Neal Coonerty, a respected bookseller whom everybody had waited to hear, finally rose to speak.

Neal Coonerty in the 1980s

Neal owned Bookshop Santa Cruz, a legendary independent bookstore dating back to the wild and woolly small press revolution of the 1960s. With his wife, Candy, Neal had galvanized residents after the disastrous 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and literally dug his store out of the rubble. The Coonertys then joined merchants and city leaders in raising a tent city downtown that kept Santa Cruz away from bankruptcy for years. (See Neal’s own remembrance of this “Small Town Miracle” here.)

But that night it was the irony of Neal’s speech that impressed everyone in the hall. Word had leaked out that in the unlikely event of a ‘no’ vote, Borders would simply move plans for its next megastore up the coast to Santa Cruz — and not just to any address, mind you: The next Borders would be located at 1200 Pacific Avenue, right down the street from Neal’s store at 1520 Pacific Avenue. (At that time, finding bookstores with an established customer base and swooping in to knock out the competition was the thing Borders and its evil sister Barnes & Noble did best.)

Rightness vs. Might

But Neal spoke as if none of that ever occurred to him. He talked about the rightness of a city council preserving the town’s character by protecting local merchants. If you didn’t keep the big boxes out, he said, the heart of your city would die. We’ve seen it happen in thousands of gutted downtowns across the country; don’t let it happen here.

Bookshop Santa Cruz

Council members perked up a bit, but you could tell they weren’t really listening until Neal pointed out that cars waiting for places to park around Borders would back into Bay Street, then all the way onto Pacific Highway 1, causing traffic accidents that would result in lawsuits against not only the town of Capitola but each and every individual on the City Council.

And that seemed to do it. In a close (3-2) vote, the Council announced that Borders was welcome in Capitola, but only if it built a 12,500-square-foot store, half the size of its original proposal.

It took a while for the astonished populace to realize that this, essentially, was a ‘no’ vote. Borders had never built anything less than 20,000 square feet in the continental U.S. and would most assuredly back off in Capitola, especially since bigger bait waited up the coast in Santa Cruz. Suddenly people rose to their feet, incredulous that a compromise about traffic would actually stop the corporate behemoth that had marched through so many towns like an invading army.

A Moment to Remember

Still, this was not the moment I remember most about that long night. That would occur later as everyone started filing out, when the owners of Capitola Book Cafe, Kaleidoscope Teachers Store, Seeds of Change Children’s Bookstore, Mockingbird Bookstore, Bookworks in nearby Aptos and other booksellers looked at Neal with gratitude and respect and empathy and fear.

Because sure enough, in August of 1999, Borders announced that it would abandon its plans in Capitola and open a big new flagship store at 1200 Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz. Neal’s family had barely recovered from Candy’s death by a stroke the month before. Construction didn’t take long. At its May 2000 grand opening, the football-field-sized Borders was so streamlined, plush, well-stocked and gorgeous that even Neal’s most loyal customers went in “just to look.”

But then Neal and his staff went to work: They cut the Bookshop’s budget, trimmed events, reduced the number of workers from 50 to 30 and hung in for the short term, which lasted for more than a decade. Few observers gave them much of a chance, since the second thing Borders and Barnes & Noble did best was to take a loss until all the independent bookstores nearby ran out of money. You’d think 11 years would have done the trick for Borders, but no. Thank heavens.

Talk about the Titanic

So this was what struck me last week when Borders Books and Music, now bankrupt and noisily dying, announced the closing of 200 stores. Popping out from that list like an infected toe was the big, fat (talk about Titanic) 22,000-square-foot Santa Cruz Borders at 1200 Pacific.

Casey Coonerty Protti

Neal’s daughter Casey, who took over management of the store (Neal is a county Supervisor today; his son Ryan is a city councilman), said one of the reasons Bookshop Santa Cruz survived was that people weren’t just loyal; they came back again and again because of “the staff’s passion for books and our belief in local shopping.” Well stated. You can feel that draw today from the Bookshop’s fantastic calendar of author appearances, book clubs, poetry readings, photo contests, short-story competitions, signups, mixers and outdoor events.

The Other Surprise

But here was the incredible effect of it all: Whenever I walked by Borders on my way to Bookshop Santa Cruz, I could not believe the ambience of the street.

In typical Santa Cruz fashion, the Coonerty family made it appear that two giant bookstores were friendly neighbors rather than tooth-and-nail competitors. I’m sure that’s not the way they felt, but that’s the way things looked in a downtown area that itself had refused to die after not just one earthquake but several.

(It wasn’t just appearances only. As reported here, after the attack on 9/11 destroyed a Borders store in the basement of the World Trade Center, Neal walked up the street to the Santa Cruz Borders to “give them a card that we were sorry for their loss but happy that all their customers and employees got out of there safe.”)

You can read Casey Coonerty Protti’s gracious letter to customers about the closing of Borders. What a relief to know this is one independent bookstore that can now invest in its own future.

The Last Question

And while it’s fun to say that Borders had a pyrrhic victory on the way to its own demise (I’ve never used “pyrrhic” before!), what astounds me is the damage the chain leaves behind — hundreds (maybe thousands) of dead independent bookstores across the country; shabby Borders stores remaining that are so gutted of inventory they look like thrift shops in bad times, and a customer base that is shifting again, this time not under any chain bookstore control.

Indeed, isn’t it interesting (though scary) that one reason Borders, not Bookshop Santa Cruz, will fail is that many readers are moving away from brick-and-mortar stores toward Amazon, Costco/Target/Wal-Mart/Sears, Goodreads, eBooks and other influences that have altered the retail landscape as well as the very practice of reading.

Heaven knows it’s not easy for young booksellers to enter this modern void. And yet, here they come — not hundreds but surely dozens of smaller, leaner, tougher bookstores that know how to rebuild the browsing experience, the author event, the hand-sell, the personal relationship with every iPhone-carrying customer. These owners know how much we need that bookstore experience, despite and because of our addiction to the screen.

So goodbye, Borders! You big meanie. You big, arrogant, irresponsible mess of a bookstore chain! And welcome back independents, one by one by one.

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