Back to previous post: Babylon 5: Eyes

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Department of “Say What?!?

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

March 14, 2011

Why Borders Cratered
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:55 PM * 161 comments

Many have asked.

Here’s an answer, at Quora.com:

Failure to build efficient systems and processes … To provide one example, a lower ranked title that sells out in a B&N will be replenished from a central warehouse within 2-3 days. The same process could take up to 16 weeks for Borders.

That’s just one part of item five in a six-item list, all of which are interesting, make sense, and could serve as a Lesson To All.

The list starts with “Failure to adequately address the internet sales channel and the subsequent ebook market,” and ends with “Branding failure.” Detail and examples provided. Well thought out, well presented. The whole entry makes fascinating reading.

Comments on Why Borders Cratered:
#1 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 02:20 PM:

He missed a big one. As I mentioned on ComicMix, many of their current problems stem from a 2005 $250 million stock buyback, all in the name of "returning value to shareholders"... which I read as "bust-out".

#2 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 02:21 PM:

It is a good list.

The other thing about Borders, for me, was that it never felt that they were committed to selling books. Especially in the last five years, every time I went into a Borders I felt like I had to claw my way past the bookmarks and stuffed characters and board games and chocolates and DVDs and CDs to find the books--at which point (again, in the last five years or so) they rarely had what I was looking for. Barnes and Noble probably has most or all of the same stuff cluttering up the store, but I always seem to feel that it's a book store that sells other stuff, rather than a store where they're just trying to see if anything sells at all.

#3 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 02:27 PM:

The question I have looking at that list is -- how many of those are things they should have known were going on, and what's "Monday-morning quarterbacking" about the list as opposed to useful to someone in the trenches? When they saw some indicators, how should they have known which ones to react to? They were clearly reacting to some indicators, and (according to this list) not the right ones. How does one tell what's right, particularly in a market that's changing as rapidly as this one was (and still is)?

#4 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 02:29 PM:

I'd like to add: 7) poor customer service.

While my local Waldenbooks (Borders) store staff are friendly and helpful, it was the central offices that canceled my pre-ordered book without letting me or the store know. I later found out they had done that to a lot of people. (This could actually be filed under item 5, I guess.)

My store manager was nice enough to give me a phone number at headquarters to call and complain. It took me forever to talk to a live person, who didn't do the promised follow-up call.

#5 ::: Bob with a pseudonym ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 02:36 PM:

Glenn @1: Stock buyback tells the markets many things, none of them good. Basically it says, "We in management are sitting on a big pile of money and have no idea how to make it into a bigger pile of money. We suck at business. We're going to use our pile of money to provide an artificial floor for our stock price. Don't be surprised if all the people with brains and talent cash out and leave while this floor is still in place."

#6 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 03:23 PM:

In my college town with several independent bookstores, for some reason, every chain that opens here goes bust in a few years.

In this case, it's going to leave a big hole on our main street, big enough that there are going to be community meetings about how to deal with it.

#7 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 03:23 PM:

Madeleine @ #2, I read somewhere that Borders was making more money on the non-book and non-CD parts of their inventory than on books and music. If that's true it's no surprise you had to use a machete to find printed material.

#8 ::: Claire ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 03:36 PM:

This reminds me a lot of A&B Sound in Edmonton (Alberta). Not sure how big a chain it was, but it used to be the most excellent place to order music. They had a huge selection, and if they didn't have it you could order it. Expert staff on hand. Sure, they had sound systems for sale too, but a lot of people went there for the music first and the electronics as a side thing.

Then they decided to compete with Future Shop, Best Buy, et al. Basically gutted the music section to focus on the electronics. Special orders? If you're lucky, you'll get called when they cancel the order. Thing is, they couldn't compete with the prices at the bigger chains, and they lost a lot of loyalty when they sacrificed their music section.

They've been gone for years, now. Didn't even stick around long enough to have to deal with internet ordering.

I was reminded of this by Madeleine Robins at #2 and Victoria at #4.

Always very sad when a store forgets what it's all about, and what it's loved for, and goes under as a result.

#9 ::: Adele ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 03:50 PM:

I worked for Borders in two of their smaller stores for 5 years. (One Waldenbooks, which was an excellent experience, and one Borders Express, which was a horrible place to work and I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.)

From the perspective of a lowly employee, corporate didn't listen. Not to employees, not to managers, not to their customers. They kept doing things that worked for other companies and other products but didn't work for books. I know the managers tried to get them to listen because it was hurting store business, I know quite a few regular customers requested the number for customer service to call and complain, and I know that it didn't do any good. (Example: the District Manager called our store and told the manager that people would be written up for passing out the customer service number for things "the company was not going to address or change".)

The bankruptcy news did not come as a surprise to me or the people I worked with.

#10 ::: Pat O'Neill ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 04:23 PM:

If the local outlet is any indication, I noticed a major drop in traffic when they stopped having seating areas located in different areas around the store and moved it all to the cafe section. They've recently replaced one or two of those areas locally, but the damage was already done.

#11 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 05:01 PM:

I can't think of a case where a stock buyback is a more appropriate use of excess cash than a big dividend payment, and if I was a shareholder I would be livid that they blew money on a buyback when they could have just given it to me, the investor.

Stock prices are going to revert to the mean, that is, to being based on an assessment of the future discounted value of the company. A stock buyback doesn't change the future discounted value, it just pumps the price up for a little while.

That is of course what stock-owning insiders would want if they were planning to dump their own holdings. It's not what anything but day-trading short-term investors would want the company to do for their benefit, though.

#12 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 05:06 PM:

Also - no discounting whatsoever in an age when Amazon routinely discounts 40% or more off new titles.

I'll pay cover price at Borderlands or another niche bookstore for the privilege of browsing an interesting selection and supporting a local business. I'm not paying it at Borders, where I generally wind up by accident - one public corporation is pretty much like another when it comes to donating to their bottom line.

#13 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 05:25 PM:

Ten-twelve years ago, I said that Borders had the better book selection, and Barnes and Noble had the better chairs.

Five years ago, I was noticing that Borders had the better chairs, but B&N had the better book selection. Things have continued in the same direction since then.

#14 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 06:01 PM:

#3: how many of those are things they should have known were going on, and what's "Monday-morning quarterbacking" about the list as opposed to useful to someone in the trenches?

Setting aside my stock buyback item, when the cash could have been used to ride out the great reccesion:

1. Instead of simply subcontracting, Borders could have bought a chunk of Amazon and let them handle it, and made money both ways. Which leads to:

5. If they were missing titles, they could have used Amazon as their back end to ship to bookstores and/or straight to the consumer.

#15 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 06:11 PM:

What I noticed about that list is that, apart from the first and last reason, all the examples given are of things Borders used to do very well until external factors made them obsolete or others started to do them better. It's the law of the handicap of the headstart. They were excellently adapted to a certain market and then the internet happened while their competitors improved while they saw no reason to do so until it was too late.

But the internet especially is a huge reason why any bookstore is hurting right now. According to one bookseller acquintance, every bookstore in Amsterdam is hurting in one way or another from the competition of internet, even the big boys.

Oddly enough I myself have been buying more books through brick and mortar rather than internet outlets the past few years...

#16 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 06:24 PM:

Wow, even the little indie store in CA I worked at had a better inventory system then Borders. That's sad.

I remember back in the late 90's when I saw Borders doing their mega-expansion, and I thought, they're going to run out of money eventually. Then what?

And they did.

#17 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 06:27 PM:

There have been a lot of one-hit wonders in high tech. A business that starts with a great idea and then fails to adapt or come up with other new ideas. I didn't expect it could happen in the book business.

#18 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 06:32 PM:

My hometown has a Borders and a Barnes and Noble. I belong to the members' programs at both stores (even though B&N's costs money and Borders' is free). I occasionally shop in Borders but almost never buy anything; I spend a fair amount at B&N.

Why?

1. Borders is very poorly organized and has way too much non-book, non-music, non-movie STUFF. The space is visually cluttered and unpleasant to be in.

2. Not only can I not find anything in Borders, the employees can't either, and they don't seem to care. B&N's employees are both courteous and knowledgeable.

3. B&N carries a much better selection of the kinds of books I like to read, the kinds of movies I like to watch, and the kinds of music I like to listen to. What's more, I can FIND THINGS. (My daughter likes Borders because they carry a lot of manga. But even she got pissed when they kept MOVING THEM AROUND.)

(4. B&N has better chairs, more reasonably distributed. I don't use them much, but when I used to shop with my mother, she used them a LOT as she was not able to walk or stand for long periods.)

#19 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 06:33 PM:

"Barnes and Noble secured the exclusive Starbucks partnership"

I don't think that's accurate. There is (last time I checked) a Borders in the mall near me with a Seattle's Best coffee shop in it. Seattle's Best is a second brand name Starbucks sometimes uses so they won't look like such a total monopoly.

#20 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 07:08 PM:

Independents, for me, when possible, the past few years. I'm lucky to have settled in a region with some good ones. There was one independent, specializing on sf, that was poorly organized and didn't do well on customer service as well--they kept failing to notify me when an order came in, though I gave them my contact info--and they went under. Taking that little extra bit of care can make a real difference. The people I deal with now have been right on top of things.
Buns and Noodles is nice enough to browse in, but I distrust big chains. It didn't help some 12 or so years back that I asked one attendent where I could find something about the Bosporus, and he said "What's that?"
One good memory of Borders--one Friday after Thanksgiving I was in there, and came out just in time to see the Bon star come on, and I have been a confirmed Bon/Macy's star lighting watcher ever since.
As for Starbucks, I don't do coffee.

#21 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 07:19 PM:

I can't imagine it was helpful that Borders and B&N so often put big stores in close proximity.

Another advantage B&N has is that they seem to be running some college bookstores now. That's a great way to get a captive market, year in and year out, with a built-in demand for overpriced chotchkes.

#22 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 07:33 PM:

Jon H @21, B&N has been running some college bookstores since at least the 1980s.

#23 ::: VictorS ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 08:12 PM:

Jacob @12: One reason companies have preferred stock buybacks over larger dividends recently (the last decade or so, anyway) is that a higher stock price gets different tax treatment than dividends. Dividends are either income or short-term capital gain, for tax purposes. (The rates have been identical for these categories for a while; I can't remember which bin they go in.) On the other hand, a rise in stock price can often be realized as a long-term gain with a significantly lower tax rate. Of course, you do have to sell the stock before the price drops again...

#24 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 08:13 PM:

At least in my area, Washington, D.C., in the 1990s Borders used to carry academic-calibre history books, even in my narrow field (classical history). This got me started on the studies that led to my getting a Ph.D. in the field.

For the last decade or so Borders has just gone downhill in carrying serious books, and seemed to drop off precipitously in the last couple of years (cf. the "non-book" items). I have read academic books in Google Books, enough to find out whether I needed them, and then bought them at Amazon.

The only thing I used Borders for recently has been Piccadilly notebooks, like Moleskine without the steep price tag; then Borders stopped selling them and I wish I'd bought ten.

#25 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 09:02 PM:

I'm s;lightly happy that my local Borders isn't closing (yet) - it's much closer than the local B&N. (There used to be a B&N that was local, but it disappeared and the building became a Petco.) The local Borders still has some seating, around its stairwell, upstairs, in addition to the coffee section.

My complaint about Borders: if their in-store computer system (generally speaking, a good thing) says a book is 'probably in the store', it probably isn't.

I went into the local B&N a few weeks ago, looking for Jo's book, and couldn't find it, because I don't know where they shelved it. Their computers aren't available for customers to use - as if we're incapable of figuring it out.

I don't like the websites of either one - graphics-laden and slow loading, and focused on the latest best-seller. If I'm looking for a book, that's not what I'm looking for online!

#26 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 09:03 PM:

Erik, #19: Do you have a link on the Starbuck's/Seattle's Best thing? Not doubting you (it sounds perfectly plausible), but some people I know need to see that.

My local Borders seems to have been an unusually good specimen, judging by the comments above. The tchotchkes are generally restricted to the area right around the cash registers, they have a decent selection and the staff seems knowledgeable. The main reason I didn't go there more often is that the parking lot is a complete clusterfuck -- too small for the amount of traffic, aisles too narrow, etc. I'll miss it, though.

#27 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 09:16 PM:

Seattle Coffee Company (a Georgia corporation)

Seattleā€™s Best Coffee LLC (a Washington limited liability company)

Subsidiaries of Starbucks as filed with the SEC.

#28 ::: J Greely ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 09:27 PM:

In late 2003, I walked into Borders looking for a recently-released DVD. They didn't have it, and said they'd order it for me. Nine days later I received a postcard stating "The publisher reports that this title is currently OUT OF STOCK. Your order has been CANCELED. Please check back in a few months if you are still interested. Thank you." (the all-caps words were also printed in red)

Honestly, I'm surprised they lasted this long.

-j

#29 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 09:30 PM:

Barnes and Noble (at least the stores here) sells a lot of other stuff too - CDs, games, puzzles, calendars, tchotchkes - but it doesn't seem to have hurt them. People grouse about it not belonging in a bookstore, but I think nobody minds too much as long as they find the books they want.

I think it's squarely in how the business was operated, and as an outsider I would have guessed the same #1 reason that he gave.

#30 ::: Dave Robinson ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 09:33 PM:

My local Borders is another that's closing, leaving us with BAM rather than B&N. We'd spend a fair bit at both, but would more often get big-ticket books at Borders (with a coupon).

What really made the difference for us was online sales. We've spent a fair chunk at BAM online (not as much as Amazon, but it's a substantial amount - a few hundred at least), and nothing at Borders.com. Ever.

Yes I'll pay more at BAM if I buy a book off the shelf than I would at Amazon - but if I order the book from their website it's about the same as Amazon - usually within fifty cents either way if you're a club member (which we are because I play D&D there every week so I support the business).

Borders was great with coupons - otherwise, not worth the money.

#31 ::: Mike McHugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 09:40 PM:

Oh look: an Irish subsidiary of a Dutch company. I wonder if one of the excluded subsidiaries is a two person Bermuda based one?

#32 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 10:01 PM:

Back in 1975,I came to Ann Arbor from darkest Oklahoma, and one of the things I liked best about the city was a little indy bookstore named Borders . . .

The ownership from those days sold out long ago, I guess.

#33 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 10:33 PM:

I seem to remember an article a few years ago about a new Borders owner (Kmart?) and the CEO mentioning that they analyzed all info about selling books and determined that the greatest sellers of books were walmart and Target, and that therefore their buying strategy would be to emulate those stores. Soon after I noticed fewer and fewer books I was looking for in the store, and absolutely no happy browsing accidents of anything interesting. As far as I'm concerned, you lose the core voracious readers, who don't neccesarilly buy their books at discount stores, you lose the game anyway.

(full disclosure - former Shakespeare & Co, Waldenbooks and B&N employee.)

#34 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 10:58 PM:

The guy who was trying to buy B&N runs a supermarket holding company: his idea is that books should be sold like stuff in the supermarket. Which pretty much guarantees the publishers would have to pay for shelf-space, and we'd only see bestsellers.

#35 ::: Bryan Feir ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 12:46 AM:

Claire@#8:
I remember A&B Sound... they had a multistory store in downtown Victoria, BC as well, which was apparently the second store of the chain. Twenty years ago, they were one of the best places in town for the Boxing Day sales, and we would sometimes do A&B gift certificates for Christmas. The store was also a squirrelly little maze of racks, and on the big sales days, getting from one end of the store to the other took work.

For a while, they were THE big chain in Western Canada before the collapse and HMV came in to swallow up the remains.

#36 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:09 AM:

Claire @ # 8:

A&B Winnipeg had even more nightmarish stories. Apparently the guy they moved to Winnipeg decided he didn't like Winnipeg and didn't want to stay.

In the first year or two he was there, the manager would be able to talk to head office about these decisions and convince them to cater to the market somewhat, but then he stopped trying. So things would happen like 8 copies of a CD or DVD being special-ordered, and two arriving. Someone actually showed us a record of the prime example: Phantom of the Paradise, which for some reason is right up there with the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Cult Classics locally, sold 10 copies in Winnipeg versus 2 in ALL the other stores in Canada in a certain time frame. But they couldn't convince head office to let them keep it in stock, they had to keep special-ordering. And anyone other than the manager was ignored if they tried doing his job.

I knew it was doomed, not just from the slipping size and quality of the music sections, but when they hosted the Juno Awards (Canada's biggest music award, for you non-Canucks) right across the Street from one of the A&B stores, and they *didn't* have a sale, promote any of the nominees, anything.
___________

Slightly more on the topic of the moment, I was more impressed with the music section in Borders than I have been with some "music stores" these days, since they've virtually all begun to focus on DVDs, Blu-rays and video games (And books...I've begun wondering if that section will grow enough to start including titles other than bestsellers in a few years)

I found things there I couldn't find at any mainstream music store in Winnipeg. (And for indies, the Folk Fest Music store is hit-and-miss outside the obvious genre, though they've surprised me.)

Maybe this changed; the last couple of times I've done concentrated shopping in the US, we've been in cities where Barnes and Noble was either closer to our other destinations (Minneapolis), or the only large-scale bookstore of which we were aware (Grand Forks). So it's been at least 3-4 years since I stood in a Borders.

But it seems to me that all the entertainment stores have been lately sort of blurring together; I'm seeing books appear in larger and larger quantity in former music stores (Now music/DVD/Blu-ray stores), to the point where I've wondered if I'd start seeing music stores whose book sections competed with small bookstores, the way it seems some bookstores have CD sections that compete.

On the other hand, we lost another music store, for, as far as I could determine as a shopper, deciding to stop providing as much harder to find music or DVDs, and instead trying to outdo its bigger competition in the Bestsellers for cheap, and the book markets, and extras like t-shirts. (I know I found less of what I looked for, or for worse prices, than I used to each recent visit.)

And I began to wonder; Sometimes stores survive by adapting in that way -- but it seems to me that sometimes, the best policy isn't to provide the exact same thing as your nearest competitor, but to find something they don't offer that people want. But I have yet to see a really big chain try that in a visible way.

#37 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:26 AM:

When I visited Winnipeg for the 1994 WorldCon, I took the opportunity to stock up on Max Webster CDs.

#38 ::: Arthur D. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:49 AM:

sara@#24

I only recently discovered that Borders had been selling Piccadilly notebooks and their similarity to Moleskine, so the week they announced bankruptcy, I went around to a couple to see if I could stock up. I ended up with a few that I wanted. Could have had more, but passed on getting more than immediate needs. They still sell them online, and note that most of them are online sales only. I'm not very tempted by that, since they're still going through bankruptcy.

Otherwise, it doesn't seem like Borders was managed that well after the founders sold them off to KMart, which appears to have begun a chain of mediocre management with curious decisions along the way.

#39 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:02 AM:

I know another reason. Promoting the corporate vision over the local talent.

To give you an idea, I worked in a really great Borders in the Denver area. The general manager was usually dead on with his hires (one or two clunkers) and ended up with a largely knowledgeable and interested staff. We did some promotions of our own that were highly successful, things like having a game night for RPG groups that shot up our RPG and manga sales, picking out a book to sell (which is how we got a breakfast with Christopher Moore plus signed books), the creation of my Pumpkin Spice character to sell coffee*, and lots and lots of author events.

And Corporate didn't like it. It wasn't universal. It wasn't their artwork, their branding, their specials. Never mind that getting a booth at the local fantasy convention was a fabulous way to sell lots of titles for the guest authors (because there weren't small booksellers selling new stuff at that con for some reason.) Never mind that we had anomalously high sales spikes for the things we chose to promote in our own special way. We weren't doing it their way, so it was apparently no good.

I heard about some of the later fallout from one of my former managers when we bumped into each other at the Denver Worldcon. The best folk started jumping ship when the employee conditions got worse (benefits slashed and so on.) The general manager went to work for the Chamber of Commerce, who appreciate his efforts. So I wasn't particularly surprised when Evil Rob told me Borders was on the line for bankruptcy last year. (You can tell when a company is in dire straits when it can't pay its suppliers.)

*I wasn't given much choice on the subject. "We decided that Pumpkin Spice left the Spice Girls." "Oh, that's nice." "And you're going to draw her." "What?"

That's what happens when you go on vacation for a week...

#40 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 05:34 AM:

Hardly even anecdata: When I was in the US (has been a few years now), I found that the local Borders had better coffee, nicer staff and better lighting than the local B&N. My eyes are bad, so lighting is very important to me. Based on that tiny bit, I'm sorry to see them go...

Stock buyback: Would it make sense with an eye on who *controls* the company?

Martin @15: Oddly enough I myself have been buying more books through brick and mortar rather than internet outlets the past few years...

I wish I could do that. But as I read nearly 90% imported books which no store in the area carries, (and don't even ask about the library) and get into town only on Saturdays, even if I didn't mind waiting two weeks for a book and paying the surcharge for imports, the way the staff looks slightly panicked if one wants anything out of the ordinary would make me re-consider.

#41 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 08:40 AM:

#40: Stock buyback makes sense to drive the price up of the stock to act as a poison pill of sorts, to prevent some corporate raider from buying cheap stock to get a hold of the cash. In a buyback, the spare cash disappears and the stock price goes up, removing both motive and opportunity.

One note against Borders buying a chunk of Amazon: it might have opened Amazon up to sales tax liability, which has been a huge competitive advantage for them over the years. Real easy to boost sales if you get to be a few percent cheaper than a bricks & mortar store because you aren't charging sales tax. Of course, the state loses billions in tax revenue, but we want to starve the beast anyway, right?

#42 ::: Tucker ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 09:01 AM:

Point #1 (deliberately outsourcing internet sales to Amazon) has baffled me for a decade now.

I'm slightly skeptical of #3 (overreliance on music), if only because the local B&N seems to have a ginormous CD/DVD selection as well.

nerdycellist @33: when I worked in a Walden's (2002-2005) we were selling "product." Not books, but "product." Because people who buy books are using exactly the same purchasing strategies as people who buy, say, toilet paper[1] or microwave dinners. I can't help but think that was related to the KMart takeover.

[1] Insert joke about your favorite love-to-hate author here.

#43 ::: Nickp ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 09:13 AM:

Rea @32.
Yeah, I loved Borders when I lived in Ann Arbor in the early 90s. Wikipedia says it had already been sold to Kmart at that point, but I guess the rot hadn't set in.

I like to shop for horticulture and botany books. Our local B&N has a reasonable selection, and browsing often turns up something interesting that I wouldn't know to look for. The local Borders had the same five "How to Grow Marijuana" titles sitting on the shelf for years, or so it seemed. One orchid book. Nothing on succulents, and nothing of a botanical persuasion that was even vaguely technical.

Feh. It won't be missed.

#44 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 09:48 AM:

Glenn Hauman @41 said: One note against Borders buying a chunk of Amazon: it might have opened Amazon up to sales tax liability ...

Those of you not in Illinois may not have heard of this one, but our governor recently got legislation passed requiring all online retailers with any affiliates/business channels in Illinois to collect Illinois sales tax from residents.

Amazon responded by announcing that as of (some date), all Amazon Affiliates -- from Borders right on up to individual bloggers with 'click here for Amazon books' links -- were to be utterly cut off and disowned, so that Amazon could ignore the law.

#45 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 10:31 AM:

PJ @25: B&N is working on an in-store find-it-yourself system that showed up in the Union Square B&N some months ago. There are at least half-a-dozen kiosks scattered around the store (on the main floor, near the kids' department, and near the cafe that I recall, plus possibly more elsewhere--it's a big store).

You type in what you're looking for and it runs a standard search protocol; once you've identified the specific item, it shows you a map of the store with the area you need marked. It will also print out a slip with the same information plus the title of the book. Alas the slip does not contain the map, which is a flaw, but 9 times out of 10 I can find what I'm looking for from a memory of the map and the listing on the slip.

It's particularly helpful when I need to find something in a section I don't often frequent or when the store has been rearranged.

#46 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 10:34 AM:

I have a theory about retail.

There are things you will buy that are all the same as each other and which you can buy anywhere, and which there's no reason but price and convenience to buy anywhere in particular.

And then there are things that you will buy that are different from each other or harder to find.

Shops can make a lot more money selling the first kind of thing, but because people can buy them anywhere, it's the second kind of thing that gets them to choose that particular place to buy them.

Borders makes money selling bestsellers, but it's the presence of weird notebooks OR books on the Bosphorus OR my books that gets people through the doors and while they are there they also pick up Harry Potter and Robert Jordan which they'd otherwise have bought in the supermarket or the airport or online. And because the OR items are different for different people but the bestseller items are the same, this is weirdly difficult to see in the figures.

So they tried to concentrate on the money makers and couldn't understand why they weren't making money.

I first came up with this theory when looking at whole 75,000 people cities in Britain that are 25 miles from three other 75,000 people cities, all with identical shops. If you live between cities, the one you choose to shop in for all your identical purposes is the one that has the best chance of non-identical purchases -- for me, a second hand bookshop, for somebody else, a craft shop, or a rock shop or a RPG shop. If you are the city council you look at the RPG shop and it's geeky and scruffy and you think how much nicer it would be to have a chain shop there, and don't realise that the people who were coming because of that RPG shop and spending small amounts of money there were also buying all their identicals in your town rather than one of the others.

(Britain has 20% the population of the US in an area smaller than Florida. The economies of scale this provides have led to a level of corporatisation and uniformity of city centres that the US and Canada can barely imagine. Live Starbucks, but everything.)

#47 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 10:44 AM:

Tucker @ #42 -

I worked at Walden in the mid 90's and that was the first time I had heard of books referred to as "product". I had just come from a couple of years at S&Co, and that was a shock, I can tell you. The manager was a mall-store manager in that she probably didn't read all that much and could have as effectively managed a Claire's boutique. My own enthusiasm for books was inconsequential and possibly looked upon as a liability.

After working at B&N in NYC and WI later, I was happy to see this was rather more of a mall-store attitude rather than a Corporate Bookstore one. We weren't as creative as B Durbin @ #39, but we did manage to keep the readers, geeks and specialists working for us. Every year I was shot down in my suggestion to set up a booth at gen-con though.

I understand books make a tiny profit for everyone involved - as evidenced by family working other modes of retail and getting an 80% discount and still not losing their store any money - but it's a tiny percentage who buy the most books and if we're not catered to you're not going to stick around too long.

#48 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 10:52 AM:

I have almost no experience of Borders stores; I've been in 3 in NYC in the last few years, maybe 10 times total. Anecdata: 1, I literally don't remember much about--bought a few manga, I think; 1 was busy (near Penn Station at lunchtime) but staff were so busy as to be unable or unwilling to answer questions.

The 3rd is an anchor store in an odd, open-air mall in a neighborhood near where I live. The mall has struggled since opening in 2006 and recently went bankrupt and was sold to the people who made the Queens Center Mall a rousing success, so perhaps they will be able to fix this sorry place (but who builds an open-air mall in NY?). The Borders has had a slightly run-down air virtually since opening. The manga selection was excellent for a long time but decayed over the years. Ditto the magazine section. Music and video grew dramatically, especially video, but there are any number of more convenient places to buy video (often cheaper). It's often difficult to find a staff member on the floor.

Interestingly, the B&N in my neighborhood sells mostly _books_ rather than product. They have a small rack of video and music, the requisite Nook counter, and some games/toys/notebooks/greeting cards/etc. But mostly, it's a bookstore.

8 times out of 10 I can find a staff member on the floor or at the customer service desk and they never look at me like I'm crazy even when I'm asking for something unusual. Staffers are helpful to young people too--even in her pre-teens, my daughter was comfortable asking for books she wanted. We have ordered any number of books over the years at this B&N and the Union Square B&N and only once was there any kind of problem--we missed the notification somehow and the book was shelved (but had not been sold, so we bought it anyway).

And when my kid was little, we did storytime and the summer reading contests and all that jazz at this B&N. It was a place you went even if you weren't necessarily going to buy anything. And that's true even today--whenever I'm in there, all the seating areas are full and there are people sitting on the floor in the corners. Older people usually get the chairs; the teenagers usually get the floor. Sometimes the Teen and manga sections are carpeted with people reading. I imagine that at some point, they're chased out, but I've never seen it happen, and neither has my teenager, who is occasionally part of the human carpet.

#49 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 11:34 AM:

I used to like Borders. I've got some of that Geek Loyalty, so I never really re-examined it and assumed I still preferred Borders to B&N . Meanwhile B&N got better and Borders got worse (20/20 hindsight, maybe) and the store near me got more and more spacious with less and less actual stuff.

I like to think the 10+ copies of a Publ*shAmerica book, with a recommendation from the store employee who was also the author, could have happened anywhere- but maybe that was A Sign that nobody was paying attention.

Didn't Teresa say something once to the effect of "People buy publishers and try to only publish the bestsellers and don't understand why that doesn't work"? The same thing seems to happen with bookstores.

Shame what happened to Borders. Hope all you guys on the publishing side didn't get bit too badly.

#50 ::: Arthur D. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 11:39 AM:

Melissa@#48

I wonder if the builders of your open air mall happened to come from the west coast.

#51 ::: Erf ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 12:16 PM:

I'm kind of surprised no big corporate bookstore chain is using "local specialization" as a form of branding in itself. If there were a chain that you knew you could go to for the more specialized stuff, where they not only know about it but are enthusiastic about it, that would make them the first place people think of for pretty much any books (following Jo Walton's theory) wherever they go. I suppose corporations are too afraid of "losing their brand" to be able to figure out how to pull this off, though. Much easier to make sure every store looks and feels the same, has the same stock, etc. Not nearly as effective (or lucrative!) but easier.

That particular type of branding is important for restaurant chains, be they fast food or better fare. You see the place and you know exactly what the atmosphere will be, and exactly what kind of food you're going to get there. Reliable. I suppose the same holds true for chain dept stores like Walmart and Zellers, even more upscale ones like Sears and The Bay. (Sorry, I don't know the US equivalents.) You know at least generally what sort of stuff you can find at each place, and if the stores sometimes have different layouts at least the directories or overhead signs are pretty consistent.

Basically that's important for commodity stuff that you need to more or less buy the same thing over and over again. (In the dept stores, not only do you need to occasionally replace appliances, but fashion is a commodity in some sense. The details change but you know Sears sells stuff you usually like while The Bay doesn't, etc.)

But why in the world would anyone think that mentality applies to stuff as unique as books? The only thing I can think of is what's already been discussed here: they're thinking of books as commodities, which means they're competing on price and atmosphere. (The other thing to compete on is "type of commodity" but they all sell the same bestsellers. You don't see one chain bookstore that always has a better fantasy section, or a better history section, etc.* Which says to me that they're even doing the commodity model wrong.)

And some of them seem to forget about that atmosphere part.

Maybe I'm just missing something big, but it sure sounds like there's room for a new brick & mortar bookstore chain to come along and blow away everybody else by actually paying attention to what the customers want -- not just which books, but what atmosphere and services, etc. Anyone see any sign of that happening?


* A lot of the tiny local bookstores that didn't get completely crushed by the chains are specialty stores -- mystery, SF/F, etc. Others are the ones with great service, and knowledgeable staff who'll track down any special order you ask for. The latter can happen in a corporate model, but it gets suppressed because it costs money... :(

#52 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 12:54 PM:

Glenn, #41: I don't think it would be wise to argue in favor of sales tax for online transactions. Yeah, Amazon's prices would go up and there'd be a windfall on that, but you'd also kill thousands of small businesses and put a shitload of people out of work.

#53 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 12:56 PM:

I know when I worked at B&N they did some local specialization - the UWS neighborhood I worked in had a lot of psychologists/psychiatrists and they carried a greater variety of heavy-duty psych books. We used to have a list at the info desks of which NYC B&Ns specialized in which subjects. I didn't notice as great a concentration in WI, but for awhile the section leads had some discretion as to what to stock so long as it was available at the major distributor and returnable. It has been nearly a decade since I worked in a bookstore, so that very well may have changed.

#54 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:49 PM:

Glenn Hauman @ 41: "it might have opened Amazon up to sales tax liability, which has been a huge competitive advantage for them over the years."

This sounded wrong to me, and so I checked: if you make an order to an address in Washington state, Amazon charges sales tax. I don't know if that's particular to WA, but there's at least one state they collect sales tax for.

#55 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:52 PM:

heresiarch @54: Amazon is unable to deny that it has a presence in WA state, so it charges sales tax here for purchases here. I mean, its corporate headquarters and some major warehouses are indeed present in the state of WA. Don't know which other states they're officially in.

#56 ::: Tucker ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:56 PM:

heresiarch @54: it's peculiar to Washington state because that's where Amazon is based. It's like all those old commercials for Time/Life book sets that were $19.95 per volume plus 8% for California residents.

nerdycellist @ 47: oof. My sympathies. We actually had a really good (and fannish) manager, and we were small enough that as long as we made payroll or a little over corporate didn't interfere too much... but all the corporate communications had "product" all over them, and the manager slipped into that sometimes.

Jo Walton @46: that makes a lot of sense to me, both in the 'this is why people come here' and 'this is why profit-seekers don't get it' senses.

#57 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:27 PM:

heresiarch @54: Currently under the law, mail-order (and therefore online) businesses are required to collect and report sales taxes for the state(s) they are based in. In all other states, the consumer is legally required (but almost never bothers, in practice) to keep track of, set aside, and pay all sales taxes they incur in out-of-state mailorder transactions.

Illinois basically decided they want that revenue to help make their (horrifically deficited) ends meet, and so has passed a law changing the 'based in' wording to be rather more strongly inclusive of a wider range of stuff that would make a retailer liable for collecting Illinois sales taxes.

#58 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:53 PM:

Arthur @50: I think they were from FL, actually, but I don't remember anymore. But that mall was in the planning stages for long enough that you'd thinking someone would have managed to impress upon them the fact that we have Winter here . . . .

That wasn't the mall's biggest problem, though. The biggest problem was that it was a boutique mall, aiming at a certain kind of shopper. The majority of the people who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods were not that kind of shopper.

Case in point: a pretty little gift and stationery store. When I was shopping for invitations for my daughter's bat mitzvah, I went into this store, and the prices were about twice what they were at the stationery and party store closer to home. The invitations were just as nice as the ones at the fancy store and much more affordable.

All the stores were like that--too expensive, and, for the most part, not stores that sold "practical," every day items. Interestingly, a few years later, a big craft store, a Trader Joe's, a Home Depot, and a furniture store opened a few minutes further along the same road. If any one of those had been an anchor store in the open-air mall, it might have succeeded.

#59 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:56 PM:

My B&N is a little bit specialized by having a bigger Judaica section than many/most--sensible in a neighborhood full of Jews. It also stocks more romance than the Union Square B&N, though the Union Square store is larger.

#60 ::: Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 03:27 PM:

Shame about Borders. Ironically, one of my favorite things about them -- more backlist/academic titles than B&N -- is one of the things on their list of errors. I always liked how the shelves at Borders looked like someone who actually liked to read had picked out some titles.

I dunno, tho; I'm enough of a sucker for immediate gratification that I would often buy a book NOW rather than wait a week for Amazon to send it via free shipping. Possibly most people have more sense than I do.

... One thing Borders & BAM both do that BN doesn't is, labels on the back that say what section to shelve a book in. BN really needs to move to that. You can't sell the book if neither you nor the customer can find it.

#61 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 03:28 PM:

Also, worst return policy ever.

A little while before the announcement of the crash and burn came out, I tried to return a book to my local Borders. I'd bought it earlier that same week. It still had the store's original price sticker on it, with the code number that indicated that it had come from that store. It was all but untouched. (I bought it, put it in the car, drove to work, realized I already had it, and left it in car until I returned it.)

They refused to accept the return, even for store credit or exchange. Because I didn't have the receipt.

That's the last thing they ever sold me.

#62 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 03:55 PM:

Erf @51:

I'm kind of surprised no big corporate bookstore chain is using "local specialization" as a form of branding in itself.

That's easy: lack of control by corporate HQ.

There's no way to predict corporate profit margins when you have 100 stores in 50 states, each following some homegrown, tailor made business plan. That means all those MBAs back at HQ sit around sucking their thumbs. There's no justification for keeping the corporate hierarchy since the operations have just proven them useless.

Instead we get centralized planning, cookie cutter store layouts and micromanagement from HQ. Everyone in the chain of command has a role to fulfill and credit for increase in profit flows upwards. The MBAs get to prove themselves useful, earn the bonuses and thus reinforce the corporate hierarchy.

Full disclosure: I worked at B&N for a few years. I was told straight up by the Manager that our business model was the way it was because Big Boss man didn't care if we were selling books or hammers. It was all widgets to him. B&N escaped the fate of Boarders by this much.

#63 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:01 PM:

Melissa - I don't know about current policy, but 10-15 years ago, each B&N had its own buyer with hir own specialties. There was a tiny B&N in the Manhattan Mall (what used to be Gimbels' main store) at 32nd St and 6th Ave. They had a great SF section - good writers, some backlist, etc. because they had a buyer who really knew the field.

What neighborhood are you in that has a larger Judaica section? Upper West Side? Park Slope (which gets a lot of business from the Orthodox neighborhoods of Flatbush, Boro Park, and Crown Heights)? Someplace Out Of Town?

Marginally OT: Harper-Collins upsets the balance between stores and libraries for ebooks

(OT can stand for on-topic, off-topic, open-thready, whatever you like).

#64 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:09 PM:

Anderson @ 60...

That reminds me of the Luna bloodbath of a few years ago. The line was supposed to be for fantasy stories with a strong romantic element. Alas, people couldn't find the books because bookstores's uninformed employees shoved them in the Romance section what with its publisher being Harlequin.

#65 ::: Jason Aronowitz ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:20 PM:

Sorry about going way back to #11:

"Stock prices are ... based on an assessment of the future discounted value of the company."

Yes. Divided by the number of shares. A stock buyback reduces the number of shares, so the value of each outstanding share goes up permanently (holding the expected value of the company constant).

This ignores any signaling effect of the buyback that can change the expected future value either way. That's more in the realm of psychology than arithmetic.

#66 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:22 PM:

Serge, 64: Oh, Luna. I borrowed the first one from a friend and was so put off by the font that I never picked up another one.

#67 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:24 PM:

TexAnne @ 66... That too? That line was really well planned, wasn't it?

#68 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:28 PM:

Jon: I'm in Queens.

#69 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:34 PM:

re 61: Funny about that: I was at L. L. Bean yesterday. The two people in front of me were doing returns. Receipt? Who needs one of those?

#70 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:38 PM:

I've enjoyed a number of Luna books, but their font does tend to be...strange. (I'm the main fiction buyer for my library, so our Luna books are in SF/F.)

#71 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:49 PM:

One day I received an e-mail from Borders that a new Diana Gabaldon novel was out in the Highlander series. By chance I was at a B&N either that day or soon after and saw a cardboard rack with paperbacks of the earlier books from the series. (I even bought a couple that I hadn't read yet some time later.) I checked at several Borders. They had the new hardcover but none of the earlier volumes. I told the manager of one Borders that they were making a mistake: B&N had earlier books from the series and people who came to the series only recently would probably buy the books at B&N.

#72 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 05:03 PM:

A Peripheral, Nay, Elliptical Observation:

I'm one of those skimming readers who does better with books where principal characters do not have names that begin with the same letter.

Just suppose, hypothetically, that a story was contrasting a (relatively) good guy and a dastardly failure currently getting his comeuppance. Suppose, furthermore, that both characters happen to have names that begin with...oh, let's pick the letter "B".

Even if they have markedly different name lengths, quantities of words in their names, and non-alphabetic characters in the mix to differentiate them, I find it takes extra effort to keep them straight in my head.

Just observing this, in a general sort of way.

#73 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 05:12 PM:

"They refused to accept the return, even for store credit or exchange. Because I didn't have the receipt."

That's new. I have never had that problem for any item they carried, stickered or not; I wonder if that's something that's cropped up with the recent financial troubles.

#74 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 05:17 PM:

abi, #72: Peripheral to your peripheral comment... if you ever read the book The Years of Rice and Salt, you will doubtless appreciate one of the author's techniques as much as I did. The book follows a set of souls on their karmic journey thru a number of different lives, but you can always tell which character is which soul because their names all start with the same letter. (A different letter for each soul, I hasten to add.) Without that cue, I'd have been hopelessly lost.

#75 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 05:39 PM:

Eric Nelson: Seattle's Best is an owned subsidiary. Starbucks bought them in 2004.

#76 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 05:49 PM:

Keith @ #62, I have that problem with Safeway. All purchasing decisions are made in Oakland (HQ), with no regard to the peculiarities of the Hawai'i market.

#77 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 06:19 PM:

Madelaine @ 2: That's how I feel about the sole remaining SF store in London, Forbidden Planet. The whole ground floor is merchandise; books and graphic novels have been relegated to the basement.

New Worlds/Murder One was much better, but the block they were it got redeveloped and the store they had to move to was smaller and they didn't have room for the SF (they made more money from the romance and detective books), and then they folded anyway... Oh! I've just discovered they've gone online instead (Google is my friend). Not the same, but better than nothing.

Melissa Singer @ 48 "Sometimes the Teen and manga sections are carpeted with people reading." Way-back-when, I used to buy my SF at Odyssey 7 - on the way home from school, and then I could catch a lift with my father, who worked nearby. The first time they saw me looking at comics rather than books, they gave me carte blanche to browse the comics as much as I liked* - a smart move.

*They didn't have display copies, so they were trusting me not to mess up the ones I read but didn't buy.

#78 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 06:21 PM:

Melissa: You've been talking about The Shops at Atlas Park Mall. It was developed by a local company actually -- ATCO realty, which was owned by the Hemmerdinger family. Dale Hemmerdinger was a member of the MTA board of directors for a number of years (appointed by Pataki), and probably the reason that the Q54 and Q45 buses were rerouted to stop by the mall.

I spoke to a cashier at the Borders there and was told that the 3 Manhattan stores being closed had higher rents than Atlas Park.

#79 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 06:46 PM:

Sarah S. @61 said: A little while before the announcement of the crash and burn came out, I tried to return a book to my local Borders. I'd bought it earlier that same week. It still had the store's original price sticker on it, with the code number that indicated that it had come from that store. It was all but untouched. (I bought it, put it in the car, drove to work, realized I already had it, and left it in car until I returned it.) They refused to accept the return, even for store credit or exchange. Because I didn't have the receipt.

B. Durbin @73 said in reply to her: That's new. I have never had that problem for any item they carried, stickered or not; I wonder if that's something that's cropped up with the recent financial troubles.

I can tell you exactly why they did that -- they're having shoplifting problems. One of the big moneymaking modalities for serious, repeat shoplifters (not just broke college kids, thrillseekers, etc -- the people who are doing it as a business model) is to sneak out either mass quantities of cheap books like paperbacks or the occasional academic brick of a nonfiction title ... and return it, either to the same store, or (if you think they've made you visually) to another store in the same chain. "I just bought it yesterday ... my husband took the receipt to work with him ..." etc.

Chains that don't have a problem with shoplifting -- where the volume is small enough compared to their sales -- just take the loss, and try to catch them before they leave the store. Really on-the-ball stores save photos off the surveillance cameras of the 'professionals,' train the staff, and escort the personae non gratiae off-premises as soon as they're seen.

Chains that have cut their budgets to the bone, don't bother to train their staff, and have apathetic management have a BIG shoplifting problem, usually -- especially if they've cluttered up their first floor with drifts of nonbooks so it's easy to look like you're browsing and then melt out the door suddenly. And if their shrinkage numbers are high enough and their management is worried about maximizing all cash, forget about being able to return without a receipt, even for store credit. Because a return with no receipt for store credit gives a transaction that you can return WITH a receipt for CASH at some other location.

I adored the six months I worked at a B. Dalton ... it paid shit (even the store manager was making less than $40K/yr, and he had over ten years experience in his post), but I just purely loved working there. My (book-obsessed) coworkers, helping people find what they were looking for, alphabetizing and straightening sections ... I tell you what, if I ever get independently wealthy, I'll totally go work in a bookstore.

#80 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 07:10 PM:

When Jo's latest book came out, I decided to go to Borders to pick it up, as I had received one of their gift cards for Christmas.

They didn't have it in stock, which didn't surprise me, but did disappoint me. I said, "All right then, I'll special order it." and they sent me to a computer terminal to special order it myself from Borders Online. The screen timed out. I collected the employee, and together we tried again. The screen timed out. On the third attempt (or was it the fourth?) we were successful.

I could have stayed at home and ordered it there; the only incentive for me to go to their Big Building Full Of Books (where I might well make other impulse purchases!) was that by ordering it from a store terminal I didn't have to pay shipping, even though they would ship it to my house. This wasn't even explicitly stated as a "why you should visit us"; I learned it in an offhand comment from the employee. And had I not had trouble the first time I attempted to order, I wouldn't have gotten the free shipping because the employee wouldn't have been there to put in the Sekrit Code.

So Borders was actually actively discouraging me from going into their premises by making me do all the work of ordering the book; making me choose between using their buggy terminal (which I had to stand up to use, and was at a weird height anyway) or using my own comfortable chair at home.

This makes no sense to me. It used to be that if I needed to special order a book I'd tell the clerk the author, title, and my contact info and it would magically appear at the store a few days later. Almost painless, because the clerk (whose job, after all, it is) would do all the repetitive data entry. Their order screens were also easier for them to deal with, since they didn't have to worry about payment options or shipping addresses.

The only nice thing about the experience was the fact that the book was shipped directly to my house. Other than that, the experience was deeply annoying and slightly physically painful.

#81 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 07:19 PM:

I forgot to mention that because one has to pay up-front with special ordering from Borders Online (because you're not REALLY special ordering; you're buying online!) it's impossible to pay cash. My gift card was three dollars short. In the normal run of things, I'd have plunked down a five, received my change, and that would be that. But no. Major drama. I could buy another gift card for $2.76 or whatever it was! No, I couldn't, because you can't buy gift cards that small!

I ended up having to pull out the credit card, which I'd not planned on doing. An annoyance, but had I not had said card, it would have meant that I'd have been unable to buy the book. All thanks to pre-paying and the death of the actual special order.

#82 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 08:50 PM:

abi @72: both characters happen to have names that begin with...oh, let's pick the letter "B"....I find it takes extra effort to keep them straight in my head.

You too? That's a relief to hear. "I'm not alone!"

#83 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 09:20 PM:

PurpleGirl @78: That is indeed the mall. Thanks for the reminder of the local nature of the developers; I had quite forgotten (though I remember the controversy over the bus rerouting). For me to get there is two buses or a car, so I don't go often, and when I do, it's always been with people who drive.

I had been wondering how that Borders survived the closing notice. Several other locals and I were speculating that the new mall owners cut them a deal on rent, since the bookstore, the movie theater, and the restaurants are things that keep people going there while the development limps along in its current state.

#84 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 09:26 PM:

Abi and Jacque: that's a pet peeve of mine too--characters with names that begin with the same letter. I usually win the argument with the writer, but not always; sometimes a writer does this deliberately and will not be talked out of it.

However, IRL, two of my cousins, sisters, have names that begin with the same letter . . . and the same letter begins their last name. Their parents did it on purpose.

#85 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 09:33 PM:

#52: I don't think it would be wise to argue in favor of sales tax for online transactions. Yeah, Amazon's prices would go up and there'd be a windfall on that, but you'd also kill thousands of small businesses and put a shitload of people out of work.

As compared to the shitload of people put out of work by the Borders bankruptcy (including retail workers, publishers, and authors) and laid off by governments that have no money to pay employees?

Elliott at #57 points out that the tax is supposed to be paid anyway. Amazon's business model relies on millions of people cheating on their taxes and counting it as savings.

As far as Amazon's business presence in states, they've threatened to close down a distribution center in Texas when Texas dared to present them with a bill for $269 million in uncollected sales tax, and have pulled similar deals in Rhode Island, North Carolina and Hawaii.

And of course, there's no sales tax on stuff Amazon downloads, either-- which is where the industry is quickly heading.

#86 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 11:09 PM:

I haven't had much exposure to Borders. My experiences with Barnes & Noble have been good enough that I have to struggle to remember that they're one of the Corporate Monoliths that put all the indies out of business. ;-)

Jo Walton #46: YES. The thing is, it's not just books; AIUI, this is part of the Standard Program for MBAs, that they're being trained in Business, and it doesn't actually matter what's being sold.

Wherever this attitude crops up, you see companies trying to cut off the "long tail" of their customer base, and "only sell the really profitable stuff". Cue inevitable downslide, frantic thrashing and finger pointing, and eventually, here we are.

#87 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 11:26 PM:

I don't have a huge problem with characters whose names start with the same letter, but I remember beta-reading a book by a poster on rec.arts.sf.composition, and the book had two characters named "Valerie" and "Valentine". (And, I recall, there was at least one scene where the two of them were alone together and having a conversation. Their speech patterns weren't quite distinct enough that you could do without names to distinguish them.) In later drafts "Valerie" changed to "Annalee".

#88 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 12:21 AM:

@dcb: that's not new with Forbidden Planet. You had to go to the basement for books even back in '91-'94, though graphic novels may have been at ground level back then.

#89 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 12:25 AM:

85
Well, it's probably not a good idea to assume that people will pay taxes voluntarily on something that they don't know is taxable. And of course it's so easy to know what your sales tax should be, when you have state, county, and city taxes....

#90 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 01:31 AM:

abi@72: Commercial history needs a better copy-editor, perhaps?

#91 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:24 AM:

Elliot Mason: Sur la Table solves the shoplifting for cash problem (and we have some pretty amazing theives. It looks as if someone, right after New Year's snagged an entire Bob Kramer Knife Block... which a really big block; we've also lost entire sets of pots, and [I think] a kitchenaid).

If we carry it, as a chain, and you don't have a reciept, you get store credit, on a gift card. Try to return it again... you get a gift card.

Repeat ad infinitum.

#92 ::: Pere ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:57 AM:

To dcb @ 77 re. Forbidden Planet:

To be fair, the basement is nearly twice the size of the upstairs. And they have wonderful Art Of The Film books. I got a Ken Adams design book there (Prod Designer for Bond and Blade Runner) and any number of F/SF artbooks.

#93 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 05:57 AM:

re 72: ...or why, every time I find myself at the first page of the Quenya Silmarillion, there is a long pause while I wonder if I have the stamina to keep all the progeny of Feanor straight.

#94 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 06:03 AM:

Abi @72ff - and yet, you liked Among Others ...?

I had the same problem with War And Peace, where every character's first name is Prince.

#95 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 07:19 AM:

David @94:

Is the sneering tone in your comment intentional?

#96 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 07:33 AM:

Second Bruce: "G'day, Bruce!"
First Bruce: "Oh, Hello Bruce!"
Third Bruce: "How are you Bruce?"
First Bruce: "A bit crook, Bruce."
Second Bruce: "Where's Bruce?"
First Bruce: "He's not 'ere, Bruce."
Third Bruce: "Blimey, it's hot in here, Bruce."
First Bruce: "Hot enough to boil a monkey's bum!"


That being said, because Bill Shakespeare 's "Twelfth Night" had the two women's names be near-anagrams of each other, I never can remember which is Olivia, and which is Viola.

#97 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 07:37 AM:

Serge, 96: Olivia lives there. Viola's visiting.

#98 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 07:45 AM:

Abi - No, it certainly isn't. I'm mortified. I was trying to play with the meme (and nodding to two books where I genuinely did have the problem, though clearly with Among Others that's a feature rather than a bug). I'm really sorry if it read that way.

#99 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 08:06 AM:

Then, in Atlanta Nights, we had Richard Isaacs, Isaac Stevens, Irene Stevens, and Steven Suffern.

#100 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 08:27 AM:

How is taxing books acceptable to your First Amendment? Churches go untaxed, so should books. Tax on books is government interference with free speech!

Pay more income tax instead.

#101 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 08:36 AM:

Matthew Brown @88; Pere @ 92: Okay, London FP isn't too bad (although New Worlds always got the imports in several weeks sooner, if more expensive), but Manchester FP has perhaps 16 shelf-feet of books (remembering from my last visit a year or so ago*) - and that's mainly RPG tie-ins.

Abi, Jacque et al.: me too, although I'm usually okay so long as the word-shapes of the two names look very different: "Bob" and "Barnaby" would be okay; "Bud" and "Brad" would be problematical.

* I pop in occasionally when in the area, just to check if the situation has improved.

#102 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 09:46 AM:

TexAnne @ 97... Viola=visitor? Thanks for the memory helper.

#103 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 10:25 AM:

Re: 72, in Bakshi's 1978 animated Lord of the Rings, Saruman is sometimes called Aruman, possibly to avoid confusion with Sauron.

Sometimes not though, which doesn't help.

#104 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 10:29 AM:

Niall McAuley @ 103... And the hobbits were named Frodo, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo.

#105 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 10:37 AM:

Jo Walton @46 and everybody else: It's all about Coase. I'm still amazed by how far you can twist the ideas in The Theory of the Firm. Supermarkets and department stores have known forever that you can rope people in by offering them lowered costs for a bunch of transactions in a group. But they've missed out on the parts about the quality of the experience and the value of people's time. Make things bad enough, and people will fire you from your position as their favorite store.

#106 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 11:31 AM:

Serge @ #96

When I taught Shakespeare and helped my students prepare for the dreaded "identify the quotation" exam I reminded them that a good fallback answer for "Who said X" is always either "Antonio" or "The Duke" for they are thick on the ground.

#107 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 11:34 AM:

B. Durbin @ #73

It is a new policy. At least, it's new since I worked at Borders 10 or 11 years ago. However, I was severely and publicly chastised and told that "It has always been our policy."

Ergo, no more Borders shopping for me.

#108 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 01:16 PM:

I'm wondering if I should spend my Christmas borders giftcard soon. Unfortunately, they are not carrying the anthologies I want from a small press on the internet...

#109 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 01:56 PM:

Jo, #100: Heh. IMO we should be taxing churches -- especially the ones that buy billboard advertising, because it's obvious that they are running as businesses.

paul, #105: I thought the technical term for that was "loss leader". You get them into the store to buy X at a lower price, but you make your money back on them also buying Y, Z, and a few other things at regular price as long as they're in the store anyhow. If you don't have Y and Z, why should they come in just to buy X, when they can get X (albeit at a slightly higher price) at some other place that does have Y and Z?

#110 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 04:06 PM:

Jo Walton @46: That's a really good point which, as you have noticed, goes for individual stores and towns/cities alike.

#111 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 04:28 PM:

re 85: Amazon's business model relies on millions of people cheating on their taxes and counting it as savings.

As does essentially every mail order business in the country. There has always been a balancing act between charging sales tax and charging shipping.

#112 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 04:35 PM:

David @98:

That's all right, then. Thanks for clarifying.

#113 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 04:45 PM:

Regarding taxes, I heard a little ditty years ago:

"Don't tax me, don't tax thee, tax the fellow behind the tree!"

#114 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 04:47 PM:

My tax lecturer back in my accountancy days used to say, "Peole who dislike paying taxes can be divided into two roughly equal groups...men and women."

(Though I don't actually mind paying them, considering the value I get from the amenities they fund.)

#115 ::: Mary Aileen sees more spammy oddness ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 05:22 PM:

#115 is a non-sequitur at best.

#116 ::: SamChevreSpotsgenuinelyoddMightbeSPAM ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 05:23 PM:

Directly above.

But will take the opportunity to note that taxing books purchases like other purposes is not 1st Amendment problematic, for the same reason roughly as time, place, and manner restrictions on speech aren't. (Taxing fiction more than non-fiction, or .... any other content-based taxes, would be illegal as I understand the law.)

#117 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 05:28 PM:

Sam @ 117 (Taxing fiction more than non-fiction, or .... any other content-based taxes, would be illegal as I understand the law.)

You mean we couldn't tax the Bush and Rumsfeld memoirs?

#118 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 05:37 PM:

Books are not taxed in the UK.

Actually, I don't mind paying taxes. There are lots of things for the common good, which can best be paid for by taxes, and which I value highly (NHS, education, social care for example). I just wish the big corporations were not allowed to get away with not paying the taxes they ought to be paying.

Be interesting to see what people would suggest, if they were asked to divide up their taxes between health, education, transport, military spending, foreign aid, etc. etc...

#119 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 06:47 PM:

dcb:

Be interesting to see what people would suggest, if they were asked to divide up their taxes between health, education, transport, military spending, foreign aid, etc. etc...

For foreign aid there is a recurring phenomenon where people overwhelming think less should be spent on foreign aid, but when they are asked to specify how much should be spent, they give a number much higher than current expenditure.

#120 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 07:05 PM:

@ Jo Walton, 100: If it's legally acceptable to tax books as long as you don't tax them differently, would it be legally acceptable to tax churches as long as you didn't tax them differently? I do have a dog in this fight, but I'm also a lover of intricate rules lawyering for its own sake. Although this may be just plain lawyering.

(Hmm. First question that comes to my mind: does a church hypothetically pay real estate at business rates or residential rates? There may not be a default here. )

@Jason Aronowitz, 65: There is no theoretical difference in result between a share buyback and a dividend. In practice I can see a couple of differences. For one thing, dividends are expected to recur. If your company paid a dividend last quarter and it pays a smaller one this quarter, that implies doom and gloom. (I don't remember what company I was looking at, but it was losing money and paying a dividend that was greater than the loss. ) Dividends are something that, in the popular imagination, keep retirees from starvation.

A share buyback is not something you count on. I don't know what the legal requirements for advance timing is on share buybacks- the ones I've seen have been authorized to take place over the course of the next year, but I'm far from expert.

@Sara S., 107, I ran into a little bit of retconning at my bank lately. Apparently "all banks have always" charged for using other people's ATM's. That is, if your account is with Bank A, and you're using Bank B's ATM, you don't just pay B, you pay A as well. Was not the case for many years with my bank (and for many years, many banks proudly said they didn't do it in their ads), and now they're claiming that everyone's always done it.

I hate this 1984 shi... shenanigans.

#121 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 08:23 PM:

#100: How is taxing books acceptable to your First Amendment? Churches go untaxed, so should books. Tax on books is government interference with free speech!

Not at all. You can give books away to your heart's content, with no government restriction. The Gideons do it all the time.

Don't ask me to explain why book sales are taxed when periodical sales aren't, though...

#122 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 09:25 PM:

Whether periodicals are taxed or not varies by state (California went to taxing periodicals while I lived there, but I don't remember exactly when). But then, there are still states without sales tax at all (like Oregon).

#123 ::: Ingrid ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 01:52 AM:

The Borders at Sunset & Vine in Hollywood, CA has stayed alive largely by minimizing their music section (for good reason - they're down the block from Amoeba, the greatest music store in the world) and concentrating on author events, YA books, and a robust comedy/sports/cars and romance sections. Good staff, too.

Other Borders in Los Angeles, however... the process/systems error was certainly rampant. And real estate! The Borders in Westwood was beautifully designed, but they closed off most of the space, making it feel a bit like the middle section of a zombie movie. They were a good source for Harry Potter Chocolate Frogs, and that's about it.

#124 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 02:19 AM:

Thom Whitmore: I seem to recall it as 1989. The interesting thing was that the papers are all subsidising the tax in honor boxes, where they don't have the odd pennies added to the price.

As a result I've never gotten a paper from else than an honor box since.

#125 ::: VictorS ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 04:00 AM:

@57, 85 et seq.:

Three points on the subject of sales tax. The most minor is terminology: a sales tax covers sales at the point of sale; many states have converted to a "use tax", which taxes the item at the point of use. It's just impossible to figure out unless you actually track every penny of taxable goods and services you order -- and also track whether you were charged sales tax on it. The paperwork is a major burden, and the tax that would be collected is often a minor sum.

The next minor point is that Amazon's competitive advantage doesn't lie solely or even largely in sales tax. They regularly discount books and other items by 30% from cover/list price anyway. Amazon has economies of scale and a very efficient, highly automated process. Some of these comments make Amazon sound like it's solely a tax-evasion scheme.

Third, we have the lively constitutional issue: by what right does Illinois purport to extract taxes from me, an entity doing business in California? It's a prima facie violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause. Hence the business about whether Amazon has a business presence in Illinois.


#126 ::: VictorS ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 04:38 AM:

On a similar topic: It's been twice raised that making online companies collect tax from each of their customers, on behalf of the customers' states, would be very burdensome. I have the impression that a number of people think this isn't an important point. It is important, at least if you're not Amazon-sized. Here's an example of how it would work.

Take an internet business: someone ('you' for convenience) selling jewelry on Etsy, or vintage clothing on eBay, or CDs from your web site. If we start making people who sell online collect taxes based on the buyer's address, you'll have to collect taxes for all of your customers' states. Oh, and cities, too -- there are local taxes. Oh, and if they're in a special levy district, you have to collect that.

You can't collect these taxes legally without a sales tax permit from that state. Ergo, you won't be able to sell in states without one, at least states with a sales tax. You'll need the full set of 47 if you don't want to turn down sales. Plus a full set of local tax permits, for localities that need them.

The states may not have a unified list of all the local and special districts, so you may have to compile your own. Don't miss any -- there are penalties for failing to remit tax due. And you mustn't overcharge your customers, either -- penalties again. You'll need to file tax statements with all these entities within the statutory filing period. Sorry -- periods. Each legislative body has naturally enacted its own time requirements. Don't miss a filing... well, you get the idea.

Naturally, you'll also have to send checks or electronic payments to all of the above for the amounts due. Business accounts are still charged per-check or per-payment fees for the most part, so budget postage and fees for several hundred payments per year. Oh, and sales tax permit fees, where applicable. And pre-payments based on expected tax collection, which will probably individually be pretty low.

All in all, it would get pretty ugly for the small internet business.

#127 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 06:28 AM:

The Wikipedia article on Sales tax in the U.S. tries to summarize the sales tax situation. The sales tax charged is determined by the various states (and municipalities within a state can often impose an additional tax on top of the state tax).

Groceries and prescription drugs are often exempt from sales tax. Other states have decided to not tax textbooks, nonprescription drugs, or inexpensive clothing. A few states, such as Deleware, don't charge a state sales tax.


#128 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 08:22 AM:

would it be legally acceptable to tax churches as long as you didn't tax them differently?

So far as I know, yes; it would be entirely legal to tax non-profits, including churches. But universities, museums, and theaters would be most unhappy, so it isn't likely to happen.

#129 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 08:50 AM:

Of some interest, perhaps, from The Atlantic: The Best (and Worst) States to Live for Online Shoppers

#130 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 11:03 AM:

#126 ::: VictorS @126 said: Three points on the subject of sales tax. The most minor is terminology: a sales tax covers sales at the point of sale; many states have converted to a "use tax", which taxes the item at the point of use.

That's not the case in the Illinois law; they want to tax the sale.

It's just impossible to figure out unless you actually track every penny of taxable goods and services you order -- and also track whether you were charged sales tax on it. The paperwork is a major burden, and the tax that would be collected is often a minor sum.

Minor for each individual, but quite massive for the state, if you collate all the 'minor sums' together.

Third, we have the lively constitutional issue: by what right does Illinois purport to extract taxes from me, an entity doing business in California? It's a prima facie violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause. Hence the business about whether Amazon has a business presence in Illinois.

They're not; they're trying to extract taxes from Illinois residents who are buying via companies in other states, and thereby defrauding the state of its legislated revenue that would be collected if they'd bought in a brick-and-mortar store in Illinois itself. Illinois isn't trying to tax AMAZON, they're trying to get Amazon to do the bookkeeping and money-transfer for taxes owed by Illinois residents, which is rather a different thing. Still a PITA for Amazon, of course.

There's a reason nobody ever actually bothers to keep track of what sales tax they'd owe on their mailorder purchases ... technically, it's illegal tax evasion, but states know it's utterly pointless to try to enforce it on all residents. It's much simpler to get the very biggest outlets to calculate it on their end, en masse.

VictorS @127 said: On a similar topic: It's been twice raised that making online companies collect tax from each of their customers, on behalf of the customers' states, would be very burdensome. I have the impression that a number of people think this isn't an important point. It is important, at least if you're not Amazon-sized. Here's an example of how it would work. [...] All in all, it would get pretty ugly for the small internet business.

It would. Which is why nobody's trying to make it stick on businesses with less than a certain yearly gross receipts. Mind, the expense of getting the database infrastructure set up to keep track of who owes how much sales tax based on what their zip code is is nontrivial, but once you've paid the outlay, you then only have to pay someone to keep an eye on sales-tax-rate changes and update the values in the database. It's a cost of doing business for a massive multinational company, or could be; WalMart certainly manages to handle it just fine, and they have stores in (almost?) all the states, so they DO have to make sure they know what sales tax is charged where.

#131 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 11:14 AM:

New York is now doing an interesting thing: there's a line on the state income tax form for sales tax on online/mail-order purchases. You can either pay a pre-determined amount based on your income, or you can figure out exactly how much you actually bought from out of state during the year, and calculate the tax based on that. (In the latter case, your chances of being audited may go up.) I order enough stuff online that the flat rate is usually a pretty good deal.

#132 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 11:59 AM:

Mary Aileen @ 132

The flat rate is brilliant. IIRC, Cali requires you to track all your purchases and figure it out the hard way...

#133 ::: Erin ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 12:22 PM:

I'm actually surprised that Barnes & Noble is doing so well. Every time I have to use their website, I grouch. It's poorly organized, takes too much data entry to buy anything, and has a distressingly limited search function. I love my nook, but I really wish I could browse and buy nookbooks on Amazon instead of bn.com.

#134 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 12:25 PM:

VictorS, #127: That's an excellent expansion of the "you'd put a lot of small businesses out of business" point I made upthread. Thanks!

SamChevre, #129: A lot of churches these days are clearly not running as non-profits, no matter what their paperwork says. (Joel Osteen, I'm looking at you.)

Mary Aileen, #132: I could deal with something like that. And like you, we buy enough online that the flat rate would be an acceptable choice.

#135 ::: John Fiala ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 05:17 PM:

B. Durbin @ #39:

I live in Denver, and I remember those times - you showing up at OpusCon and having signings, and those great RPGA days at the store. I started going out of my way to come by the store and browse for a while.

These days, it's Amazon & B&N, generally.

#136 ::: VictorS ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 08:01 PM:

Elliott @131 and previous: I think we're talking at cross-purposes to some extent.

I intend to argue that (a) in the general case, attempting by whatever means to collect sales taxes across state borders is unduly burdensome for small business, (b) en passant that legislation on the Illinois model has already affected small business (Amazon affiliates) adversely, and (c) that current sales tax codes aggravate that burden to the point where, in the general case, small businesses would be driven off the internet.

I also think it's disingenuous to claim that other states won't pile on immediately if Illinois makes headway on this issue.

You seem to be arguing that Amazon is indulging in conspiracy to defraud the state of Illinois. By extension, it would seem that any internet business not collecting Illinois tax is engaging in the same thing with some or all of its Illinois-based customers.

You also seem to be claiming that Amazon cutting its business links in Illinois is an overt act designed to further that alleged criminal conspiracy. I've put the point in those terms because you've used words like 'defraud' and 'ignore the law' in your previous posts.

If I've misinterpreted your position, please accept my apologies and feel free to correct me. If I'm correct, we've been arguing different, though related, points.

#137 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 11:12 PM:

Victor S: I think Amazon's business model is the real culprit. If a company has a presence in a state, they have to charge sales tax.

If a company has a corporate office in the state, they can't avoid acknowledging a corporate presence.

Amazon has, by virtue of it's affiliate system, established a presence (almost certainly) every state. I may, in the rare occasions I make an online purchase (I think it's been less than a score in the past eight years) I have done two of them from an Amazon reseller (both of those being books, one textbook, one personal).

It's possible those were Calif. to Calif. purchases. In those cases one of us, plainly, owes the state the sales tax.

I can't fault Illinois for looking at a company which is often touted as "better" for purchases, because of the lack of sales tax (esp. on things like cameras, etc., where even a minor sales tax can add up, 5 percent of 1,500 is non-trivial to the buyer, and can be enough to change how a purchase is made)

#138 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 11:18 PM:

VictorS @137: I expressed myself imprecisely, and I can see how what I said might have been heard as you heard it -- my apologies!

There is, in fact, fraud on a grand scale being committed ... technically. However, no state has to my knowledge yet actually attempted to enforce against it (except the aforementioned New York, with that genius flat-fee allowance on their income tax form).

It made sense in the days of the Sears, Roebuck catalog for mailorder businesses to not have to keep track of anything like sales tax except for their state of origin. Not only was it harder to get information about what you would even CHARGE for what state then, but as a percentage of all transactions, the total volume of mail-order sales was negligible.

However, things have changed, and I know an awful lot of people who buy the preponderance of their purchases online, from one vendor or another. Some of them (like PeaPod) collect sales tax, because they are considered sufficiently 'local' that they fall into the small non-loophole areas of the current (Sears, Roebuck era) laws; most do not.

However, there's no way in hell any substantial subset of consumers are going to track their online-incurred sales tax annually and report it to the government, and most states have given up on trying to make them.

In an era of massive state budget deficits, where their govts are trying to squeeze every last penny of revenue from anywhere they can, however, those missing sales tax dollars are looking mighty tasty. If Illinois can make any part of this stick, durn tooting every other state is going to model their laws on Illinois' new one. In fact, it would be advisable if they did, to provide a uniform field for competition, state to state.

I'm just not sure it's a bad thing to rejigger the entire mail-order bargain. If, going forward, all massive national online/mailorder vendors above a certain sales threshold had to calculate, collect, and remit sales tax for all US residents to the relevant state, there would definitely be a large initial cash outlay required. However, speaking personally (in an If I Ran The World kind of way), it would re-level the playing fields, and quit penalizing the states for our economy having moved in such a geography-neutral way.

If there are not already vendors providing up-to-date information on the relevant sales taxes for every zip code in the US, (a) I would be surprised, and (b) they'd probably show up right quick.

Mind you, I also sympathize with Amazon's wish not to be forced to do this complicated thing. The poor blogger-level affiliates are the ones getting totally screwed from both sides in this deal, though if Amazon caves, they won't have to do anything further in the way of paperwork to make the new enforcement regime happen.

#139 ::: Art Henderson ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 07:50 PM:

@ Jo Walton #100: How is taxing books acceptable to your First Amendment? Churches go untaxed, so should books. Tax on books is government interference with free speech!

That is exactly how I feel every time I pay sales tax on a newspaper.

#140 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 09:01 PM:

re 139: If it is massive fraud, can you point to the US supreme court decision that settled once and for all the applicability of the commerce clause to this sort of taxation?

#141 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 01:10 AM:

John Fiala: If you're interested, the guy responsible for the RPGA days (concept and execution) has a game site called Cheeky Dingo (that's my little dingo drawing in the corner.) Be warned, many of the game concepts are NSFW (Boy Toy and House Boy are two of the games.)

#142 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 06:37 AM:

Here in the UK, there's a gap in VAT (which, to the end user, is effectively a sales tax). Goods imported from outside the EU escape VAT if they're under a certain value (very roughly, a little more than $25).

This means that some quite big businesses in the UK have set up operations in the Channel Islands (which are outside the EU) to ship things such as DVDs. And we're not talking about that distinct a business--Tesco, one of the big supermarket chains does mail order in this way.

There are some businesses, based in the Channel Islands, which have done a deal with UK Customs and Excise. If the value of a package is high enough, they pay the VAT, which goes onto my bill. I have dealt with US businesses which have done the same, there are agreements between the US and the EU.

The UK government have done some muttering about abolishing this, but it would have to be agreed at EU level, otherwise a business in the Channel Islands could ship stuff via France, and once it's in the EU, with taxes paid, free trade within the EU takes over.

Anyway, the US appears far more complicated than the EU, with so many more states, and with so many local sales taxes. But once a company ships across a state line, I suppose the Commerce Clause kicks in, and so Congress could impose a uniform system, if they wanted to. Distributing the money to the states, and lower-level entities, would be hard.

Getting Congress to tax businesses is probably the most difficult part of the scheme.

#143 ::: VictorS ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 12:05 PM:

Elliott @139: As usual, I concur in part and dissent in part. For C. Wingate & Dave Bell: it's fairly settled that a state can levy tax from the buyers (resident in that state, of course) on stuff they buy from out of state. Usually, it's labeled a 'use' tax, to get around the ambiguity of where the 'sale' takes place. The problem, of course, is tracking and collecting the money.

So Elliott is right in a way. I'd say it's more like millions of extremely little frauds, and millions more innocent omissions, adding up to a big sum of money. Or it's a massive campaign of civil disobedience in the grand American tradition of going 70mph in a 65 zone.

My problem here is still that the burden of collecting hundreds of different taxes is too high.

In my view, Amazon is a side-show. You should be asking what happens to Etsy. They're smaller, but there's an even better case that they do business in every state. And I'll bet that they can't afford all the shenanigans I listed above. I'm very sure they couldn't have done it when they started up.

And what about the next Etsy? Will it, whatever it is, even get off the ground?

Oh, I did some quick research. The sales tax packages that are out there are 'enterprise solutions'. That's code for software that costs more than $100,000 per year -- though you can contact their professional and eager sales force to get a customized quote.

And yes, if all this comes to pass, someone will compete on volume. But that won't happen before a lot of organizations go under. And it will certainly be a barrier to anybody wanting to start a new kind of internet business.

#144 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 12:34 PM:

Agreed with VictorS: Given the fragmented status of sales tax in the U.S., demanding that all Internet businesses figure and collect the sales tax for their sales amounts to locking out everyone but the "big boys". Of course, if individuals or small companies want to do business, they can always try to rent a virtual stall from the market owners... on the patron's terms.

#145 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 12:40 PM:

I just saw today that the Borders nearest me (in Stafford, TX) is closing at the end of May. Surprised me -- I had heard earlier that no Houston area stores were closing.

Annoying to me. A few years ago the local B & N had relocated to a mall from a strip center, and close parking became much harder to find. So the Borders was my default large bookstore.

#146 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 02:19 PM:

Isn't it generally true that once businesses reach a certain size they support regulations that limit anyone else's ability to start up in the same business?

#147 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 02:30 PM:

Jim, #147: Yes. This is then spun as "government interference in the free market" -- the corporate hand up the government's butt is conveniently ignored. Never mind that, absent regulation, the bigger companies would simply kill and eat the little ones, without bothering to hide behind a screen of law.

#148 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 03:07 PM:

Big companies killing and eating smaller companies can be spun as "supporting innovation".

#149 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 03:42 PM:

Earl: Or "Creative Destruction." Brought to you by Schumpeter.

#150 ::: Patrick Connors ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 06:21 PM:

Elliot @131, 139 et al:

I do database work for a Very Large Corporation.

Not only do the sales taxes vary by zip code, zip codes themselves shift around. The application I work on has nothing to do with tax collecting, but does require zip codes to be accurate, so we get quarterly downloads from an outside vendor of zip codes and data associated with zip codes (time zones, state, geographic outline and some other data we don't use).

In my (very) occasional side business, I just price so the sales/use taxes are transparent to the buyer, then remit locally - Arizona for mail order, whatever other state I'm in if I travel and have the appropriate permit.

#151 ::: Idgecat ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 06:53 PM:

Elliot @131, 139 et al:

Where I live trying to use ZIP code to determine sales tax would be an exercise in futility. My ZIP includes all or part 5 'cities*' and a couple unincorporated pockets. 3 of the 'cities' have annexed chunks of formerly unincorporated county areas and the other 2 were created after the ZIP code system.

I pity any small internet retailer attempting to collect taxes in such an area, made even worse because many people still give their mailing address as 'Seattle' from back when that was the generic address for unincorporated King County and this ZIP was almost entirely unincorporated, so you can't even rely on what city is in the address.

*the state of Washington regards any incorporated area as legally a 'city'.

#152 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2011, 09:24 AM:

The New York tax form also asks explicitly about individual out-of-state purchases over $1000, which makes sense. A person who doesn't track everything they buy should know if they bought a new car in New Jersey, or ordered a fancy computer over the Internet. We just did our taxes, including state taxes, and I got to thinking about what percentage of people could legitimately say they had no out-of-state purchases: if you live further from the state borders than I do, don't travel much, and don't like mail order, it may well fit.

There's an interesting First Amendment exemption here in New York City: despite any other rules about street vendors needing licenses, anyone can set up on the sidewalk and sell books, newspapers, or magazines, new or used. That was a court ruling, and I think applies only to the city (my guess is the city attorney didn't appeal, so no state-wide precedent).

In theory those vendors should be collecting sales taxes, just like a bookstore with an actual building across the street, but few if any do. The exemption is just from the vending license rules: I think the reasoning is that a limit on who could sell books on the street would in practice restrict speech, given that the city limits the total number of vending licenses, and many of them are held by people selling food, not books.

#153 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2011, 10:47 AM:

(121)- Sandy B.

In Re. the bank's retconning about ATM fees -- the proof that they have *not* Always Charged was the (now legally required) need to have banks actually *post the fact of the surcharge* either on the ATM itself or during the transaction.

I remember, during congessional hearings on the matter, of one flack from a bank saying that it would cost too much to make the software changes that would require -- and my thought was that they didn't seem to have much of a problem putting up new "offers" for new products all the time through the same networks of ATMs.

As for the actual relative cost issue -- It really irks me that our elected representatives are either that technologically illiterate or think it's advantageous to so pretend.

#154 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2011, 11:56 AM:

The trial balloons now being floated is that debit cards will be limited to $40 or $50, since it's too expensive for the banks to allow people to use their own money.

#155 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2011, 12:38 PM:

James Macdonald @155: Upward limit or lower? I know a lot of stores don't like to let people use plastic for transactions under a certain value (because the per-swipe fees to them are high enough they don't make money on them) ...

#156 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2011, 12:42 PM:

Upper limit. See story here.

#157 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2011, 01:03 PM:

Not a week goes by that I don't appreciate my Credit Union.

#158 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2011, 02:45 PM:

We belong to a credit union but I've been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with them. When you find yourself opening the mail from the CU and muttering "you've been taking lessons from the bankers, haven't you?" it's not good.

I wish they would instead take a lesson from this bumper sticker.

*grumble grumble grumble*

#159 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2011, 04:51 PM:

We (the OtterSpouse and I) have two joint checking accounts, "his" (at a credit union where he used to work but no longer does) and "mine" (at a bank which seems about midrange on the rapaciousness scale). I trust the credit union a great deal more. However, their nearest branch is probably 15 miles from our house. For the usual direct-deposit paychecks and checks or debit card payments, this is irrelevant. But every once in a while, something does need to be done in person, and then it's a royal pain.

The bank has branches and ATMs all over the place. They do charge semi-random fees, but they are also quite helpful the times I've been in in person, for things like getting something notarized as well as actual banking. And to the extent that my fees support that brick-and-mortar presence and associated convenience, it seems worth it to me. But a debit card limit would quite likely push me into closing that account.

#161 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2011, 11:44 PM:

161
It's going to be a big loss in my area: we're short of bookstores. The nearest mall used to have two; now it's going to have zero. The next nearest is a B&N at a mall a couple-three miles away in a high-income area.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="http://www.url.com">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.















(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.