By Harry McCracken | Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 12:51 am
Some of you may find this difficult to believe, but there was once a time when this country was positively bulging at the seams with cavernous retail establishments that offered books, recorded music, home video, or some combination thereof. Okay, there are still some of them left. But with Monday’s news that bookselling behemoth Borders is filing for bankruptcy and shuttering at least 200 stores, it’s worth taking a look at what’s happened to the retailing of physical media in this country in recent years. It’s been a remarkably bleak time.
The music retailing business has almost completely collapsed; the nation’s biggest video-rental outfit is bankrupt and its largest competitor folded last year; Borders is threatened with extinction and its larger and more successful rival, Barnes & Noble, faces serious challenges. All this woe has befallen these industries at the same time that digital media–from music downloads to streaming movies–has boomed.
You can’t blame digital content alone for media retailing’s hard times. Storekeeping has always been a tricky business, especially during economic slumps. (I don’t think that MP3s or iTunes had anything to do with the demise of big chains such as Linens n’ Things. Long before Amazon and Netflix started distributing content digitally, they up-ended their respective industries by shipping physical goods through the mail–Amazon has better prices every day than Borders has when it’s having a going-out-of-business sale.) And several of the giant retailers that have crashed seem to have been the victim of their own boneheaded business decisions more than anything else. (Borders opened three locations within two miles of each other in San Francisco, all of which are now toast; the management of Hollywood Video mocked Netflix-style mail-order DVD distribution as a blip they didn’t need to concern themselves with.)
Anyhow, here’s a timeline of what’s happened to the nation’s largest physical-media merchants over the past eight years. It starts in February of 2003–a little over four years after Diamond Media released the Rio PMP300 MP3 player, a moment that I, at least, consider the real beginning of the digital revolution.
Wherehouse Music declares bankruptcy, says it will close up to 120 of its 370 stores; it blames its woes on digital music piracy.
Tower Records goes bankrupt; it too says digital piracy is to blame.
UK music retailer HMV closes its last store in the US.
Musicland declares bankruptcy.
Musicland says it will shut down 226 Sam Goody stores, 115 Suncoast Motion Picture Company stores, and all of its Media Play stores.
The Washington Post reports that 7500 of the 9500 chain music stores in the US that existed in 1991 have closed.
Tower Records goes bankrupt. Yes, again. “We are not commenting other than to say that at the present time we have no intention of closing any of our stores,” a spokesperson tells the San Francisco Chronicle. “Our goal is still to maintain the Tower Records brand.”
Borders says it’ll close 250 underperforming, undersized Waldenbooks locations.
Blockbuster says it intends to close 282 troubled stores.
Hollywood Video announces plans to close 520 struggling stores.
A struggling Borders says it’s secured financing to continue operations and may put itself up for sale.
Wal-Mart decides to shrink its stores’ CD sections.
Virgin Megastore announces plans to close its New York flagship store; it will become a Forever 21.
After 85 years, San Francisco’s Stacey’s Bookstore closes, saying sales have fallen by 50 percent in eight years.
Virgin also decides to shutter its other New York location and its San Francisco store; the latter is across the street from a thriving Apple Store.
Virgin decides it’s on a store-closing roll and chooses to do in all the remaining US Megastore locations which it hadn’t decided to dismantle in January and February.
Terminally ill consumer electronics giant–and once-mighty seller of CDs and DVDs–Circuit City finishes liquidating its stores and goes out of business.
In a regulatory filing, Blockbuster says it’s not positive it can remain in business.
Hollywood Video decides to close 205 locations.
Blockbuster says it may close up to 960 locations–22 percent of its US presence.
Borders says it will close 200 Waldenbooks and Borders Express mall stores.
Hollywood Video says it may shutter up to 1000 locations.
Blockbuster closes 253 stores.
Barnes & Noble closes the last 50 stores in its B. Dalton chain, which once had almost 800 locations; the folding of the one in Laredo, Texas makes it the largest US city without a bookstore.
Blockbuster says it’ll close 150 more stores in April, with further cuts later in the year for a total of 500 to 545 closures. “While we believe the future is bright, the next 12 to 18 months will remain challenging as we balance the secular decline of a single channel with the ascension of emerging channels, such as vending and digital,” CEO Jim Keyes says in a canned statement.
Barnes & Noble puts itself up for sale (and doesn’t find a buyer–it remains independent as of February 2011).
Blockbuster files for bankruptcy and says it will close many more stores. “After a careful and thorough analysis, we determined that the process announced today provides the optimal path for recapitalizing our balance sheet and positioning Blockbuster for the future as we continue to transform our business model,” says CEO Jim Keyes.
Best Buy says it will slash store space devoted to DVDs and CDs.
Borders says it will close 17 stores.
Barnes & Noble plans to reallocate space for toys, Nook demonstration areas.
HMV says it will close 60 British and Irish stores.
Borders files for bankruptcy and announces plans to close at least 200 more stores. President Mike Edwards says the move “affords Borders the opportunity to move forward in implementing the appropriate business strategy designed to reposition Borders to be a potentially vibrant, national retailer of books and other products”
Whew. I think that’s at least six thousand individual retail locations that have vanished, and it’s not a complete list. As you might guess, I’m not inclined to cling to shiny discs or dead trees out of pure nostalgia, and a fair number of the defunct businesses above were no great shakes–but putting together this list still left me feeling wistful.
But here’s a less melancholy note on which to end this exercise: The best locally-owned purveyors of physical media seem to be in better shape than the soulless megachains. San Francisco’s Amoeba Music, Le Video, and Green Apple Books, for instance, are sprawling, wonderfully quirky independents that are still very much with us. Thank goodness for that. I feel like I might live long enough to see the city get down to its last music retailer, video-rental business, and bookstore–and I’d be awfully sad if they were a FYE, a Blockbuster, and a Barnes & Noble…