Sometimes bad news makes you pause.
The announcement by Borders that it will close its store at Seventh and New Hampshire streets falls under that bad news category. It is a blow for a downtown that already feels like its retail muscle isn’t what it used to be.
Not that it will ease the sting, but community leaders and planners ought to take a moment and ponder Borders’ approximately 15-year history in Lawrence. Specifically, they should let their minds wander back to 1996 when Borders was forced to argue its way into this city’s business community.
The proposal to build a national chain bookstore in downtown Lawrence spurred considerable controversy. To some, it didn’t matter that Borders wanted to make a $7 million investment in downtown Lawrence by building a new store with its own parking — a rarity in downtown.
Instead, two issues kept rising to the surface of a heated City Hall debate. One was that the old livery stable building at Seventh and New Hampshire was an integral part of downtown’s historic fabric. The argument was that if it were torn down, the environs of the historic Eldridge Hotel would be damaged. The second argument simply was that a national bookstore chain would decimate the city’s healthy independent bookstore market.
Today, hindsight allows us to say both of those concerns were exaggerated. It would be hard to argue that The Eldridge is any less of an attraction or a historic jewel than it was 15 years ago. In fact, The Eldridge has seen a tremendous amount of new investment in the Borders era.
Even more interesting is what has happened to the city’s bookstore scene. It has not been decimated. The Raven Book Store — less than a block away — remains open. So does The Dusty Bookshelf. Yes, some stores have closed, but some new ones have opened. Signs of Life — a specialty independent bookstore — is one of downtown’s larger retailers today. Half Price Books on West 23rd Street did not blink an eye at locating in a city that has a Borders.
Even The Raven doesn’t seem to mind anymore. The ownership of The Raven has changed since those contentious days, but now the store’s owner says she’s sad to see Borders close. There is a real benefit to having several bookstores close together in the downtown, she says.
As it turn out, Borders was less of a factor in Lawrence’s bookstore industry than Amazon.com and the Internet. The folks arguing in the mid-1990s, didn’t have a clue about that development.
(As an aside, changing reading habits also will have an impact on public libraries and should be a factor in plans for Lawrence’s library expansion. Perhaps city and library officials should take another look at plans to make sure the overall library project is still relevant.)
It is important to remember all this because city leaders and planners are still asked to sit in judgment on new development projects. Arguments are still made at City Hall that some developments should be denied because they’ll run other businesses out of business.
There really should be no room for that in the city’s planning process, because that’s not planning; it’s just guessing.
It is fine and appropriate for planners to consider many factors — such as traffic flow, parking, design and zoning consideration. But leaders shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking they can predict the future. The next time City Hall leaders are presented with arguments that one business will ruin another business, they ought to remember Borders. They ought to remember that back in the mid-1990s a lot of well-intentioned people gazed into a crystal ball and were certain of the harm a Borders would do to downtown and Lawrence.
Come to find out, that crystal ball was about as cloudy as the future of a certain national bookstore chain is today.