Saturday, April 30, 2011

Quest for Fixtures

You would think a visit to buy used fixtures at Borders would be an almost gleeful experience, just as you might think I did the happy dance when our latest competitor closed a few months ago. I talked about the happy dance for months, really wanted to do the happy dance, worried about my dance steps, and contemplated a Youtube video, but when the time came, there was no joy. Actually, it's quite sad. I know what it's like to throw yourself into your business and I know from working at failed companies the pain the staff goes through as they wind down, tearing apart what they've built. At one dot-com start-up, I took a boot camp and got Cisco certified, installed an amazing OC3 connection between cities, and as I was finishing up, got a call to shove everything in my car and bring it on home. The bubble had burst.

At the Borders, customers circle like vultures. Signs, usually sparse and subtle, are gigantic, bright, and ubiquitous. Everything must go. This is not retail, this is an autopsy. Order and propriety break down and kids run screaming down the aisles. No deal is good enough for the customers and they complain bitterly. The staff are shell shocked and resigned. I want to say something, but what? Customers shop as usual, looking for bargains of top quality merchandise. Recession spending has permanently changed their patterns. There's still a lot on the shelves and I wonder a little selfishly how long before they'll clear them off.  I just bought them, after all. I am a vulture now as well.

As a store owner, there is little solace in being the last man standing. I really don't believe brick and mortar is dead, but it's constant pummeling, dismemberment and general apathy in its pounding from the public has me worried. Everyone is a free market capitalist until your job is on the chopping block. You have to wonder sometimes if survival of the fittest is the best way, especially when the invisible hand beating your face in is a publicly traded company that has lost over a billion dollars (a billion with a "B")  in their pursuit of modest profits. Meanwhile, local governments are horribly screwed as their sales tax base evaporates and their down towns are hollowed out. They pass on bogus fees to small businesses, hold votes to raise sales tax for survivors and cut local services to get by. Beatings will continue until morale improves.

Then again, what we're seeing is also opportunity. It's opportunity for me to get four new book cases and a new board game display table. It's an opportunity to sell role-playing books a little more exclusively, or possibly fan fiction for games like 40K. More importantly though, it's an opportunity for independent book stores to make a return. Independent book store numbers have stabilized recently, hovering around 1,500. They know their customers, stock what sells and work with ebooks and online sales. They are creatures of the current economic climate as well as survivors of it. They are a niche trade, destination stores, knowing they have no business as anchor stores in shopping malls. I love my local fantasy book store, Dark Carnival, and try to make all my purchases there. Where there is crisis, there is opportunity, as they say.

It's still hard not to get demoralized. I try to focus on my current situation. It's like being unemployed. You only need one job, you don't need to psyche yourself out with statistics of how the overall economy is doing. The game trade ecosystem seems strong and I've seen a number of really good stores open up over the last year or so, run by people who have hit the ground running, who seem to be avoiding the big mistakes. I don't know why I have a sense of pride in that, but I do.

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