Robert Gray reports at Shelf Awareness about Addison del Mastro’s research into the reuse of the retail locations which were left vacant when Borders, the bookstore chain, went bust. (Scroll down to the bottom for his story.) Mr Del Mastro’s piece was published at The Bulwark.

I think it’s still a bit too soon to be definite about this, but the world of retail does appear to be in the middle (at the start?) of a fundamental change. A century ago shops used to be little establishments, with a few Selfridge-descended department stores in big cities. I grew up in the Borders, like South Wales a madhouse of rugby football, where we used to have only small, local, shops: the only national chain in sight was the John Menzies kiosk at the railway station. I used to spend many an afternoon after school in Mr McCrirrick’s Ladies’ & Gent.’s Outfitters [gotta love that precise punctuation] chatting with the proprietor about Gala rugby players of a previous generation.

Here’s a bill from him from 1946, which tells its own story.

Mr McCrirrick was slight and precise, with thinning hair, always dressed in dark suit, white shirt and sober tie, and looking at you through National Health spectacles. Except for the fact that he was a really nice man, he channels Uriah Heep in the memory. He’d be found standing behind the dark, polished wood counter that spanned two-thirds of the back part of his little shop just down from Bank Street Brae. I never knew whether he was R or M: he was always and only just Mr McCrirrick. The counter space was framed, again in mahogany, with shelves and discreet drawers, which also covered the wall behind him, surrounding and symbolically protecting the unfailingly polite shopkeeper. Little if any merchandise was on anything as vulgar as display. I would sit on one of the two bent-wood chairs provided for customers of which there seem to have been few in my memory. When someone did enter — the bell hanging on a bent metal spring would tinkle, and I’d move aside into a corner. A drawer would be pulled out, a little cardboard box removed, and the lid raised to display a few pairs of dark grey woolen socks. Quiet serious words would be exchanged and a few shillings rung up in the till. And then we could start to talk about T. P. Carruthers and Tom Dorward again.

When was it that such one-on-one retail establishments went the way of all flesh? Well of course we still have bodegas and a few local hardware stores in our City, but real merchandise — clothing, food, appliances — is sold in bigger, slicker establishments. But starting in the eighties people began to believe that expansion was the royal road to business success. The big box store developed in step with the shopping mall — suburban shoppers would drive to the mall and load up. This model of retailing was in retreat before the arrival of Covid, but everyone’s recent reluctance to go out has certainly accelerated the changeover to whatever the new model’s going to be. Delivery is now much more the driver.

About five years ago we were able, by dint of local action to save our supermarket from being turned into an unnecessary large chain pharmacy. Neighborhoods, we are beginning to acknowledge, need food shops and other local merchants. Just how this will balance out against the huge growth of delivery of all sorts of merchandise is not yet clear.

Borders, started in 1971 in Ann Arbor, MI., was a successful high street bookseller until they succumbed to the expansion bug and branched out hugely. When they shut down in 2009, Borders left behind more than 500 empty, large, retail locations. Most of these, in anti-Goldilocks mode, were just the wrong size — too large, and yet not large enough. A few have been subdivided, but 12% of them remain vacant.

Binc is Borders’ real legacy (though Barnes & Noble bought the name). Binc stands for Book Industry Charitable Foundation, and it is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Binc, as Mr Gray tells us in his article, “was founded in 1996 as the Borders Group Foundation, with funding from company executives, staff payroll contributions, publishers and vendors. During that period, Borders employees donated an average of $4.17 per paycheck. From the beginning, the foundation’s aim was to help booksellers in need and to provide scholarships. The foundation was built ‘by book people for book people,’ [executive director] Pamela French says.” Unsurprisingly demand/need has increased during the pandemic, but as LitHub reported last year so too have contributions.