Will Browser gain from loss of Borders?

Photograph of Browser Books by Kathi O'Leary

BOOKS | Ken Samuels

A customer walks into Browser Books on Fillmore and approaches the counter with a sly smile on his face. “Hey,” he says, “are you guys happy that Borders is closing in Union Square?”

“I’m not happy for the people who lost their jobs,” I reply, “but it doesn’t surprise me.”

I tell him I’ve been following the stories of Borders’ financial troubles in the newspapers and in Publishers Weekly. Borders was hit hard by the rise of online bookselling and was slow to respond to the challenge. In addition, a megastore in a megaspace like Union Square has a huge overhead that must be crippling in these tough times.

“I understand that,” he says, “but does it help you?”

That’s an interesting question. It gets to the heart of the challenge that an independent neighborhood bookstore such as Browser faces these days. In our case, the Union Square Borders never had a significant negative impact on us. The residents of our neighborhood — as in most of San Francisco — have been loyal to their local bookshop. We know our customers by name. We know what they might like to read. I’ve been having ongoing conversations with them for a decade or more. These sorts of relationships have sustained us through good times and bad and are the bedrock of any longtime neighborhood business.

But is that enough to keep us going these days? Visiting customers from all over the country have told me how happy they are to be in our store because their neighborhood bookshops are all gone. While that is both sad and gratifying to hear, we face the same threats that all bookstores, large and small, face: online bookselling, the rise of e-books and of course the rough economy of the last few years.

Without question, Browser Books and other neighborhood stores must respond to the latest trends and mediums of acquiring books. But the core of our business remains the personal connection we make with readers.

My colleagues and I love books. We love to read. We are interested in topics that range from Buddhism to cooking to the literature of the Lost Generation to tigers and beyond. Lately I’ve been reading Chekhov’s short stories and the brilliant, funny novels of Charles Portis. But I also love to talk about the latest baseball books, crime fiction, my favorite book on southern soul (Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick) and my favorite children’s book (Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson).

Come on in. Let’s talk books.

Ken Samuels has worked at Browser Books at 2195 Fillmore since 1996.