Sealing the Borders: What’s next for manga fans?

July 22nd, 2011

I was reminded of just how much of a void Borders’ closing will leave in the community when I stopped by the Pearlridge store on Monday, just a few hours after reading the news breaking on Twitter.

I felt like I had to go, partly because I felt my Borders Rewards Plus membership effectively had only a few final days of use in it (now I find that it’ll live through Aug. 5), partly because I wanted to fill whatever holes I have left in contemporary manga series while (a) there were still books on the shelves and (b) I could still get my books without anyone slashing through the bar codes with a black marker. (Hooray for completing my Inu-Yasha run! )

At the entrance, there was a sign listing upcoming store events. One of those events: a manga-drawing class. “See any book seller for details,” a note at the bottom read. If I had seen that on any other day, I would have done just that, gathered any relevant information, and posted something about it here. Monday’s news, however, rendered any potential fact-finding mission moot. With the chain shifting into liquidation mode starting today, it’s safe to assume that that’s off the table for good.

Some may choose to look back on the story of Borders as a tale of corporate hubris, a big-box behemoth that shuttered smaller stores in its wake, only to suffer the same fate itself as it fell further behind in adapting to an increasingly digital world. But let’s look at it through the lens of the manga community, where the chain went a long way toward molding the habits of a sizable number of U.S. fans… for better and for worse.

On the “better” side of the ledger: Manga emerged from the dusty corners of comic book stores and into the mainstream book-buying consciousness, thanks largely to the efforts of Kurt Hassler, the sci-fi and graphic novel book buyer who helped fuel the early stages of Tokyopop’s “manga revolution.” The variety and sheer numbers of manga made available on Borders’ shelves were given a fair amount of exposure. As fans, we could browse those shelves, and perhaps pick up something that we otherwise might not have checked out. (Sure, those same titles were also available for sale on the Internet, but somehow reading pages upon pages of database text isn’t the same as being able to physically handle books.) The stores also helped give exposure to members of the local community, most notably with the mini-art gallery in the stairwell between the first and second levels of the Ward Centre store. (Longtime readers of my writings will remember that gallery, and the young artists of Monkey-Ame, were the subject of the first Cel Shaded in 2005.) They were a gathering place as well; as Annie Kwok pointed out on the MangaBento Facebook page (login required) this morning, the Ward store was where the name and logo of the group were born.

Yet all that space for manga was a double-edged sword, encouraging more publishers to enter the market than probably should have. And lest we forget, Borders’ informal “sit down, have a cup of coffee, use our free wi-fi, kick back and browse through our books” policy helped nurture the phenomenon of the “manga cow,” those people you stumble over in the aisle who just happen to have plunked themselves, their coffee, their large laptop cases and the copy of Naruto volume 51 they’re reading right in front of that copy of Love*Com volume 14 that you need to get. It got so bad that the person in charge of the manga section at the Ward store resorted to locking individual volumes in those plastic security cases that you usually see housing DVDs to discourage the activity.

(An aside: The story of the locked Ward manga is one of two Borders-related stories that I regret never having the opportunity to tell, either in Cel Shaded or here in Otaku Ohana. The other story was about a manga “subscription” service that one of the booksellers at the Borders Express store in Kahala Mall had organized, where customers could sign up for whatever series they were following, and then the store would call them when their books came in. I started gathering the information for that story in mid-March 2006. On March 31, 2006, the floodgates were unleashed … literally. The store, located next to one of the primary paths of water, was flooded out, and Borders subsequently abandoned the mall.)

The implications for future manga-buying are substantial. Unless there’s another store selling manga that popped up when I wasn’t looking, I’m pretty sure that here on Oahu, all the stores are now concentrated between Aiea and Kahala — Jelly’s on the western edge of that range in Aiea, the Kahala Mall branch of Barnes & Noble on the eastern edge. Google Maps tells me it’s about a 14-mile, 17-minute drive between the two points. For new manga, you have the aforementioned stores, plus Other Realms in Ward Warehouse, Collector Maniacs and Gecko Books in Kaimuki, and the second Barnes & Noble store in Ala Moana Center. Second-hand? There are Book-Off stores in Ala Moana and Pearlridge centers, Rainbow Books in Aiea and the University area, even Jelly’s to a certain extent. That’s it. Sorry, West, Central and Windward Oahu … you’re just going to have to find some way to drive to one of those points in that narrow corridor.

I can see a lot of manga-reading habits changing over the next few months. Will all of the sales that were going to Borders end up at those stores? I doubt it. Granted, we’re still in a better position now thanks to Barnes & Noble’s continued existence — full disclosure: they, and not Borders, had been my go-to brick-and-mortar store for new releases over the past six months or so — but things won’t be quite the same. Internet-savvy types — those who are old enough to be entrusted with credit cards, anyway — will probably rely more on sites like Amazon and Right Stuf to keep collections current. Cutting-edge consumers could even shift to digital-only initiatives — we’re seeing a lot of activity on that front this week in San Diego, with Square Enix offering free volumes, Viz rolling out a Web-enabled version of its previously iOS-only store, and preparing for launch.

Harder to call, though, is what will happen to younger readers, the ones that many manga companies are targeting with the titles they choosing to license. My best guess is that a bunch of them will end up at local libraries. But those libraries can only hold so many books; the buyers there have to balance their book purchases between manga and the rest of the book-publishing world. I think they’ve done pretty well with what they have, but still, they can’t buy everything new that comes out just because one or two people want to read it. There are other entertainment options out there, and if readers can’t conveniently access what they want in one form or another, it’s likely that those sales will be lost for good.

I’d imagine that if this scenario is playing out on our little rock in the middle of the Pacific, it’s also happening on a wider scale across the country. We’ll see how publishers adapt to it, though if Borders’ long death spiral well before the final countdown is any indication, they’ve had quite a few problems adjusting to it already. Just ask anyone involved with Aurora, Broccoli, CMX, Go!Comi, Tokyopop, DrMaster or Infinity Studios, to name a few off the top of my head, in the past five years or so. And as much as we hate to think of the possibility of more closures, I have a feeling that we haven’t seen the last of those in this soon-to-be-Borders-less world.

4 Responses to “Sealing the Borders: What’s next for manga fans?”

  1. New manga, Borders memories, and more on Fruits Basket « MangaBlog:

    [...] Borders, once the best bookstore for manga, closes its doors, Jason Yadao has some memories and thoughts about what’s next. Sesho also has some thoughts on the end of Borders and the beginning of in his latest [...]

  2. AniMatsuri:

    Again you guys have gone nuts and bought up a lot of the stuff on the shelf before the REAL discounts kick in. I went to the Pearl Ridge store and the manga shelves were already 1/2 empty! Why jump for a measely 20% when, if you wait a week, 40% or more will kick in?

  3. AniMatsuri:

    So not wanting someone slashing a black marker through the bar code thingy is a good reason to snap up stuff before the really big discounts kick in? Must be a lot of people who vainly think that. Anyway, I suspect when the economy recovers smaller shops will open up in the under served areas. Jelly’s used to be in Mililani for instance. Isn’t there a Gecko’s on the Winward side or did they close that one down?

  4. Otaku Ohana - Hawaii News -

    [...] been quite a bit of attention given to the slow but eventual demise of Borders, but I was recently alerted to another bookstore locally that will be closing its doors for good as [...]

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