I remember it well — and I’m not a person who remembers that much at all.
It was 2005. My novel EARTHCORE had come in from Dragon Moon Press, and there I was: an indie author with no distribution, trying to figure out how to get my book into a few stores. I made a sweet media kit talking about my book, podcast, and anything else I could come up with to create some hype. I went into every bookstore in San Francisco, asked for managers and introduced myself. Wanna carry my book? Can I do a reading here? Trust me, baby, I’m gonna be big!
I got a lot of smiles and nods. People were polite, but most weren’t interested in having an indie author do a reading or even carrying a few copies of the books. I understood: there’s only so much space on the shelves, and events increase costs. That’s business, man.
Then I walked into Borderlands Books in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. I met one of the owners, Jude who beamed a genuine smile that just screamed I love what I do and I hope I can help you find what you’re looking for. I gave her my pitch. With the same genuine smile, she said she would consider it, but she would have to review the material first. She pulled no punches: if my indie book wasn’t good, she wasn’t going to put it in front of her customers. Her customer’s time came first, you see.
That’s how things should be. You protect your customers. That’s how I do business, too. I had met a kindred spirit.
A few weeks later, Jude called me. Lo and behold, she’d read EARTHCORE and she liked it — she said she’d love to set up an event. Boom, one more notch in the “I’m going pro as a writer” march: an actual bookstore reading.
Jude and Alan, the store’s other co-owner, didn’t really expect much of a turnout, but they set up my event just like they set up an event for every name author that came through Borderlands. Thanks to the podcast audience, I surprised them and we had an excellent turnout. We sold a bunch of books, the bookstore made money, and I got to dress up all fancy.
What came out of that event? Loyalty. When other bookstores wouldn’t even call me back, Borderlands had done what they said they would do: read the book, evaluate it, and set up a reading if they liked it. I will never forget that.
When things started to take off for me, I directed all of my autographed copy sales through Borderlands. Their gamble on putting up a little indie author paid off with sales in boxes and boxes of INFECTED, CONTAGIOUS, ANCESTOR, NOCTURNAL and PANDEMIC. I’m going to guess they sold upwards of 1,000 autographed copies of my books in pre-order. I’d ride my motorcycle down to Valencia Street, Jude and the staff would set me up, and I’d sign away. And, of course, every book tour involved a stop at Borderlands Books.
They didn’t just take care of me, you see, they took care of you, the Junkie. They took care of you, the people who have given me this fantastic career. Want to win points with the FDØ? Treat his fans like royalty.
Borderlands excels at customer service. You want an autographed Sigler book? Borderlands will hook you up. Want a special inscription? They’ll make sure it gets done right.
Readings, signings, hanging out, getting book recommendations from the staff … I spent a lot of time at that store. So much fun.
And now, it seems, progress is bringing that fun to an end. I’ll go over a few details here, because it pertains to the publishing business, but for the full story check out Borderlands’s website.
San Francisco voters recently approved an increase in the minimum wage. It will gradually move from $10.74 now to $15 in 2018. A increase in the minimum wage is a good thing, I believe, but as is common in business, change brings casualties. That increase will raise the store’s payroll price by 39%, and total operating expenses by 18%.
If you think that doesn’t sound like much, I’ll wager you’ve never run your own small business.
Alan’s post goes on to say that to make up for the increased expense, they would need to improve sales by 20%. That’s a 20% increase of print book sales in a world dominated by Amazon. Good luck with that, any store that competes with Amazon. Anywhere. Ever.
Borderlands isn’t a poorly run operation. If you know anything about the book biz, realize that they’ve been in business for 18 years. They have survived Amazon’s ascent, they’ve outlasted recessions, they have kept their doors open while bookstores — large and small, indies and chains — have crumbled all over America. Borderlands regularly hosted the biggest names in genre fiction, and were eager to give new authors a chance to meet fans and develop an audience.
In a private email to me, Alan wrote something that resonated with my experiences with Borderlands. I don’t think he’ll mind me posting it here:
“One of the best things about running the store was getting to be on hand when authors started their career. And, in some small way, helping them with that.”
That is certainly what happened with me. The Borderlands staff supported me when no one knew who I was, hosted me for readings that built my confidence, and went out of their way to take care of you, the Junkie.
To sum up: sometimes, progress is a bitch. Amazon isn’t going away. Online bookselling isn’t going away. Costs go up in an industry where you can’t increase prices beyond what is printed on the book’s cover, and the results are predictable.
To quote Pookie Chang: “You can fuck your math teacher, but you can’t fuck math.”
I’m deeply saddened at the loss of Borderlands. I not only love the store, I love the people who run it. Hard-working, generous, loyal and kind, the entire staff — top to bottom — is full of the best people San Francisco has to offer.
Jude, Alan, everyone at Borderlands: thank you. Thank you for being exceptional at what you do, thank you for treating my fans so well, and thank you for helping me along my path.