There's a shelf full of new cookbooks at my house, fresh from the Borders liquidation sale. We joined the other book vultures this weekend, circling stacks of 30-percent-off books and 40-percent-off Blu-Rays and 50-percent-off magazines. Even the shelves, which are starting to look picked clean, are tagged with big red stickers announcing they've been sold.
Anchorage's Dimond Boulevard store is one of the 194 Borders locations closing nationwide as part of the company's Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. And now the bookstore that helped change the face of Anchorage's bookselling landscape -- for better or for worse -- is on its way out.
Borders opened in Anchorage in August 1994. Back then, the city had a good roster of well-loved local bookstores. The Book Cache, a locally-owned chain that at one point had 19 stores in the state, had sold to a Canadian conglomerate in 1989 and was gradually closing locations, but Anchorage's readers got their fixes at independent stores like Cyrano's, Chapter One, Cook Inlet Book Co., the Alaska Women's Bookstore, and Once Upon a Time, a children's bookstore owned by the women behind Classic Toys.
Borders was a different animal, though, bigger and higher-profile, and it drew in Anchorage's readers. In the years after Borders opened, several bookstores, including Chapter One and Once Upon a Time, closed; others, like Cyrano's and Cook Inlet, saw a dip in sales as customers flocked to the new option. When Barnes & Noble opened in midtown in 1996, Cook Inlet owner Lynn Dixon told the Anchorage Daily News she was "feeling real confident" about the local bookstore scene, although Cyrano's co-owner Sandy Harper said she expected a further decline in sales -- which still hadn't recovered from Borders' arrival. Cook Inlet survived for another nine years but filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and closed in 2007. Cyrano's downsized, subdividing its space and renting storefronts to other businesses, and eventually abandoned the book business entirely to re-emerge as Anchorage's premier live theater venue.
Bookselling vs. the bottom line
For a few years, Anchorage enjoyed an indie-bookstore revival with the expansion of Title Wave Books. Founded in 1991 as a used book store, Title Wave eventually expanded to the old McKay's Hardware building (left vacant when the locally-owned hardware store failed to survive the influx of cheap-and-easy big box stores) and then to the Northern Lights Center, its current location.
Title Wave owners Julie Drake and Steve Lloyd were on vacation in Hawaii in 1994 when reports of Borders' impending arrival hit Anchorage. Drake said when they heard the news, they got on a bus and rode out to the suburbs of rainy Honolulu, stopped at a post office to make hats out of Priority Mail envelopes, and walked through the pouring rain, wearing their Tyvek hats, to a Borders to find out what they were dealing with.
"Nobody knew what Borders was," Drake said. "And we had seen one. Their offering was incredible."
As the owners of a store that at the time strictly sold used books, Drake and Lloyd weren't nervous about Borders' arrival.
"There have to be new books for there to be used books," said Drake, who once ran home from the store to get her own copy of "The Joy of Cooking" to sell to a customer.
But after moving into its current location in the mid-2000s, Drake and Lloyd began to expand into new books. By 2004 or so, Title Wave was the closest thing Anchorage had to something like Portland's Powell's Books or Denver's Tattered Cover. Title Wave sold new and used books, music, movies and gifts, and hosted community groups and events featuring authors both Alaskan and Outside.
It turned out, though, that being the favorite local bookstore wasn't exactly profitable. The problem, Drake said, is that while lots of people love local bookstores, they also love a bargain. Drake remembers attending a 2007 American Booksellers Association conference and hearing that even loyal customers of independent bookstores actually buy 60 percent of their books elsewhere. At one Title Wave author event, Drake said, she watched the visiting author walk in with a bag full of newly-purchased books -- from Barnes & Noble.
"They get the discount there," Drake said. "They don't get how much cheap costs."
Sure, she said, chain stores can afford to discount their books, and everybody likes to spend less money. But that 20 percent you save comes from somewhere -- like employee benefits, maybe. Drake is unabashedly proud of the fact that many of Title Wave's employees have been with the store for seven, 11, even 18 years. They have health insurance, families, children.
"It costs money," she said. But it's worth it to avoid employing a "continuous cycle of 'somebody.'"
In 2009, after a few years of working overtime to try to make Title Wave financially successful as a new/used bookstore, Drake and Lloyd finally decided to go back to their roots. They remodeled, stopped carrying gifts, cards and other non-media items, and started buying more used books. Today the store is still brightly lit and spacious, but apart from Alaskana and maybe a pallet a week of publisher remainders, the inventory (about a half-million books at any given time) is used -- and the owners are happy to have it stay that way.
"It was a hard transition, honestly, going backwards," Drake said. "(But) this is really what we started out doing."
The new model: Used books, new Alaskana
As of this week, there are 17 current business licenses for Anchorage-based bookstores. Of those, two are -- ahem -- adult bookstores; a half-dozen are affiliated with churches, museums or schools; one sells home-school supplies, two are specific to Alaska publishers or authors, and most of the rest, like Title Wave, are used bookstores.
Cindy Montgomery recently took ownership of The Book Shelf in Eagle River, where she's worked since 1999. Most of The Book Shelf's inventory is used, although Montgomery said she makes an effort to stock new copies of the books used for honors and AP English classes at local high schools, as well as books by local authors. The Book Shelf is somewhat unique among used bookstores in that it does host author events, at least with local authors. Former Chugiak-Eagle River Star editor Lee Jordan will be coming in for a book signing on April 2, and longtime Ted Stevens staffer Barbara Mee signed copies of her book "Senator Ted and Mee" in December.
"I do try to carry new books by Alaskans, especially in the summer when the tourists are in town," Montgomery said.
In Palmer, Fireside Books stocks new books with a focus on local authors. And in Anchorage, while Metro Music and Books has shifted its focus more to used books in recent years, the store still hosts events featuring local and Outside authors. But for now, Anchorage's indie bookstores seem to have surrendered the new-book business to Barnes & Noble.
"People are still reading, because we're getting their books," Drake said. But "there's no profit margin" in selling new books since customers know they can buy those new titles cheaper at Barnes & Noble, Target, Wal-Mart -- even Costco cuts into the new-book market.
Can Anchorage sustain an indie bookstore?
Drake thinks part of the problem is that Anchorage has "low self esteem" when it comes to local businesses -- there's a misconception that a local store can't be as good as a recognizable Outside brand. Title Wave does a fair bit of business online, selling through Amazon Marketplace, and books that don't do well on the floor will often sell online. What's aggravating is that occasionally Title Wave will take a book off the floor, put it on the Internet -- and end up selling it to someone who lives in Anchorage and hadn't bothered to look for the book locally.
"They just don't get it," Drake said. "What can you do?"
Local readers lose out by not having a successful indie bookseller, she said. National chains tend to stock what they know will sell, which means less marketable titles are often overlooked. When Drake was still selling new books, she'd sit down with a distributor's catalog and pick out an intriguing title from a little-known small press just because she could.
"Borders wasn't going to pick it up. Barnes & Noble wasn't going to pick it up. We could sell one of it because we thought it was a cool book," she said. Readers can stumble onto titles at independent bookstores that they would probably have to special order through a chain. It makes shopping at indie bookstores fun for the reader, she said -- who knows what you're going to find? -- but it's a lousy business model.
As for whether Anchorage could again be home to a successful independent bookstore -- Drake isn't sure.
"I think it would depend on the bookseller, not the town," Drake said. "I don't know that Anchorage could support it -- the bookseller would have to support it. It would probably take somebody who had income that didn't come from the store."
Contact Maia Nolan at maia(at)alaskadispatch.com. Ben Anderson contributed to this story.