Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Borders' Last Days + UC Press Poetry Series Iced

Borders Group, the Ann Arbor-based, formerly fiercesome bookselling chain and main rival to Barnes & Noble, could very well be a memory by the end of this week. Debt-ridden and having failed to convince Books-a-Million to purchase it or reach an agreement with Phoenix-based private equity company Najafi Cos., Borders will liquidate its remaining 399 or so stores by the end of this week, giving 10,700 workers and affiliates pink slips. From 2006 through 2010, the company lost about $904 million, and since declaring bankruptcy in February of this year, when it closed 226 stores, laid off employees, and renegotiated leases, it has shed about $200 million.  This will mark the end for one of few remaining big-box US book chains, and thus mean that a number of communities around the country, especially less-wealthy urban and suburban ones, may not have a physical bookstore selling new books for some time. On a related note, as the Detroit News article I link to above states, Borders' previous closings pushed the "collective vacancy rate" of shopping centers containing a Borders store from 4.2 to 9.3 percent, but complete liquidation of the stores will push this rate to 18.8 percent.

I have regrettably only mentioned the company's troubles once over the last few months; I thought I'd posted a photo of one of the Chicago Borders' branches, on Broadway in Uptown, being liquidated, but I didn't. I should note that I was never a big fan of Borders; I have always been strongly in favor of independent bookstores, and their destruction at the then-titanic power of behemoths like Borders and Barnes & Noble in the mid-to-late 1990s lowered them even more in my estimation. I understood the economic forces at play, but it was also painful to watch many very fine smaller bookstores, some with specialized lines that I could never find in a Borders, no matter how mammoth it was and despite the company's reputation for hunting down less popular or promoted titles, fall like leaves from a dying tree.

I did change my tune when I realized how threatened the chains were. For all of their former economic might they were helpless in the face of new challengers like discount retailers Wal-Mart and Costco, online retailers like Amazon and Apple, structural changes like the rise of e-books and e-readers, shifts in reading habits and people's use of their leisure time, and the additional threats posed by company like Google, which like a Cthulhu has its tentacles in everything.  As much as I have disliked stores like Borders, I realize how vital a role they have come to play for many people through their very presence; they ceased being bookstores and become libraries, cafés and entertainment centers of a sort, privatized social spaces that nevertheless permitted public interactions, based around books, that people in many places long for and cannot find elsewhere.

So what will happen now, after the firesales and the mass unemployment of Borders' staff?  A few years ago, when I heard or read that Barnes & Noble, now revived because of its revitalized Nook e-reader device, was in serious trouble, I thought that the time for independent bookstores might be returning. But I realize it hasn't; the growing cultural and material transition to e-books probably means that while some independent bookstores may thrive in the absence of Borders and other larger chains, they will continue to face the struggle of selling a product that many consumers, especially under a certain age, may not want or be interested in. Or have any familiarity with.  One benefit of any child accompanying a parent to Borders or a similar bookstore was that there at least were books lining almost every wall, but the increasing dematerialization of so much means that this experience may become rarer. And not just for the youth of today, but for all of us.

Here's the Detroit News' Daniel Howes' commentary on Borders and its slow reaction to the changes in the marketplace.


Not to pile on, but another awful bit of book-related news hit the wires today. The University of California Press announced it is suspending its New California Poetry (NCP) series because of a projected 10% cut in overall funding from the University of California and low sales. The press will publish three books in the series in 2012, then halt publication completely while it seeks funding to possibly resume the series in the future. Initiated in 2000, and edited by four major contemporary poets, Cal Bedient, Forrest Gander, Robert Hass, and Brenda Hillman, NCP has until now published 33 books by 25 poets, ranging from established writers like Mei-Mei Berssenbruegge and Mark Levine to emerging poets like Srikanth Reddy and Geoffrey G. O'Brien.  Among their first books was one of my poetry favorites from 2000, Carol Snow's For.

The suspension of the poetry series isn't the press's only disturbing decision this year: not long ago, the press's new director, Alison Mudditt, who assumed her post earlier this year, had ended FlashPoints, a "a recently established series in literary studies that was notable for its model of simultaneous print-on-demand, hard-copy publishing, and online open access to texts." In fact, the series, which began only in 2010, had published just 6 books before being canned.  According to the Chronicle of Higher Education article hyperlinked aove, Mudditt remains interested in publishing the sorts of books that FlashPoints had acquired, but it had "lost money" and was identified for cuts "under a broad review of all the press's operations."

While severe changes like this might not be surprising given the various challenges I noted above regarding Borders, which all publishers face as well, the New California Poetry series, despite being only 11 years old, seemed to me to be better suited to the altered landscape, particularly given how quickly and significantly it had come to distinguish itself through the major awards its books received. In the press's first year, Fannie Howe's Selected Poems received the Academy of American Poets' prize; two years later, Harryette Mullen's 2002 NCP volume Sleeping With the Dictionary was a finalist for National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and in 2009, Keith Waldrop's Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, received the National Book Award. The press does publish other poetry books and series, including the collected works of Robert Duncan, so perhaps if the New California Poetry series cannot be resurrected, the press will incorporate more poetry into its overall publishing mission.

Yet the bottom line is the bottom line. Poetry, particularly by living poets, for the most part does not sell particularly well, except in a few cases (Maya Angelou, Charles Bukowski, etc.). To the larger point, university presses, and particularly public ones, can no longer count on even the institutional funding they once received, and not just for economic reasons, but in many cases for ideological ones as well. The neoliberal vogue for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and business-related education, alongside libertarian arguments to reduce public funding for anything to minimal levels, leaves little space or place for the arts and humanities, or even for the social sciences not in service to corporate interests. Making a case either for poetry--which the average person might relate to, in some form (having written or studied it or both, in popular music or performance, i.e., spoken-word poetry, etc.)--or for scholarly and critical work, a good deal of which remains opaque to millions of people, is increasingly tougher, though it is possible. But I'm not sure it's happening enough or in truly public and widespread way, and I'm not sure it's possible, at least at this point, to sway legislatures and corporate interests that are hostile to anything that doesn't seem to directly benefit themselves or some nexus between them.

There may be some poets and humanists among them, but it's probably also the case that in general, they could care less about the value of the work the New California Poetry series or FlashPoints were producing. The loss is a big one, but in aggregate, as more and more institutions of the University of California's longstanding excellence suffer from defunding and underfunding, the effects on our society--and world--will be increasingly severe. That's not just a portent but a promise.

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