Borderlands Books (San Francisco’s science fiction bookstore) is closing at the end of March, ostensibly due to the increased cost of doing business in San Francisco.
Though they specifically cited the recently-passed law increasing the minimum wage, from what they say they have barely been breaking even for years. All the major chain bookstores left San Francisco years ago. Used bookstores seem to be doing okay, from what I can tell in passing.
My first reactions were anger, sadness, and then–action mode! I would figure out a way to fix this. They could move. Valencia Street is turning into a fancy shopping mall. Ditch that space and move to a cheaper spot. Sell memberships! I’d join! $50 per year with exclusive monthly events. Partner with a delivery service and offer same-day book delivery. Sell e-books in the store. I texted back and forth with friends. We were on fire with ideas. We would save the store!
Then I remembered something. I don’t really want any more paper books. Paper used to be the best way to store data, and now it isn’t. Unless the books are special–autographed or amazing Taschen art books or sentimental paperbacks from my childhood–they don’t need to be physical. After a brief adjustment period, I quickly saw the advantage of e-readers. I mean, my god, anyone who has ever tried to read Game of Thrones-length books in bed will understand. Anyone who had to choose between books and clothes when packing for vacation. Anyone who’s ever moved! Books are so heavy! I’ve cut my collection by half every time.
My bookshelf used to be an idealized representation of my mind. In the same way I’d put on makeup or a pair of big, black boots, my bookshelf was a showy way of defining who I was. Look how smart I am! Look how eclectic! Nonfiction! Poetry! Travel! Fat books, skinny books. I think you can actually gauge the rise in my self-confidence by which books I removed from my exhibit. First to go were my textbooks. I was never going to reread those. Then “important” books I’d read but secretly hated. Then books I’d intended to read but never did (still struggling to get rid of those). I’m getting down to signed books and sentimental books and books I borrowed from a friend and forgot to return…even so I’ve got to admit that 95% of my books have remained untouched since my last move 10 years ago.
I don’t even want the books I write to be on paper, other than a few fun copies as mementos for friends and family or the as-yet-nonexistent devoted fans. Those I can print on demand. It doesn’t make any sense to print thousands of hard copies and send them on planes and trucks to bookstores, where people drive cars to go buy them. Such a waste of resources, so many middlemen. I can send you The Perfect Specimen right now, instantly, and it is identical to my copy.
I’m sad the Borderlands store is closing, however after much soul-searching, I do believe the owner made the right decision. Technology changes the way we get media into our brains. San Franciscans still love “books” and reading and stories and storytelling and authors. In fact I’ve never seen the city so interested in the written and spoken word.
I hope that “Borderlands” as a caretaker of the soul of science fiction can find a way to exist without a permanent physical space. One of my favorite Borderlands moments took place at a Litquake event at Z space in 2013–Alan Beatts in conversation with amazing author Jean Christophe Valtat.
Read about that evening here: https://mlukemcdonell.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/the-future-that-never-was/
Hopefully we find a way to keep this community alive in this new era.
* * * UPDATE * * *
Well, great news! Borderlands found a way to stay open another year and it involves, rather amusingly, selling memberships not books!
From their newsletter:
“Starting immediately we will be offering paid sponsorships of the store. Each sponsorship will cost $100 for the year and will need to be renewed every year. If we get 300 sponsors before March 31st, we will stay open for the remainder of 2015.
Our goal is to gather enough paid sponsors to cover the projected short-fall in income that will be the result of the minimum wage increase in San Francisco. At the beginning of next year we will again solicit sponsors. If next year we again reach our goal by March 31st, we will remain open through 2016. This process will continue each year until we close, either because of a lack of sponsorship or for other reasons.
We are still considering benefits we can offer our sponsors but, at this point, a preliminary list is:
- Reserved seating at author events
- The ability to rent the cafe and / or bookstore outside of normal operating hours for private events at our cost (which is roughly $25 to $100 per hour)
- Invitations to a quarterly gathering at the cafe where you can socialize with other sponsors, members of Borderlands’ staff and occasional special guests
- Access to preview sales of rare and collectable books whenever we make a large acquisition
- The opportunity to purchase occasional items produced by us for sponsors and not offered to the general public (such as limited Ripley prints, chapbooks, and so forth)
- A selection of unique apparel and accessories showing your status as a sponsor and not available to the general public
- Invitations to sponsor-only events, like small gatherings with authors, exclusive writing workshops, and more
So, they took my idea! Ha – it seems it was everyone’s idea. The book store survives, but not by selling books, but community.