I Miss Mall Bookstores

lAAR’s Ellen Micheletti was recently mourning the sad passing of a Waldenbooks in her town in Kentucky.  I well know the feeling.

Until about five years ago, there were two malls in my area — Tysons Corner in Virginia and Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Maryland — that were the best places to find romance novels.  The B. Dalton in Tysons and the Waldenbooks in Maryland were part of what used to be ubiquitous mall chains.

What made them so special?  For a while there — and I’m talking five or more years — each store was lovingly tended by people who knew and cared about romance.  Books were shelved face out, letting publisher art departments do their job by inviting the reader to pick up a book and read the back copy. Books were also shelved on a regular basis so it actually paid to check back in frequently to see what new treasures might have arrived since my last visit.

Back in the days before the Internets, the B. Dalton romance newsletter was my major source of info about upcoming releases.  It didn’t amount to much other than what seemed to me to be a comprehensive listing and book blurbs, but I looked forward to it.  And it actually helped guide my reading choices.

What’s also true is that now my book buying is different.  The days when I browsed and bought impulsively in brick and mortar stores are long gone, thanks to reviews and online readers.  Still, I like to browse at bookstores — well, check that.  I used to enjoy browsing at bookstores when books weren’t shoved spine-in on shelves in the booth in the back in the corner in the dark.

Back in the golden days of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, romance was, in short, not treated like an embarrassing aunt as it is at Borders and Barnes & Noble.  Okay, let me correct that, at the Borders Friendship Heights, Borders White Flint Plaza, Borders L Street, Barnes & Noble Georgetown, and Barnes & Noble Bethesda, to be specific.

And there’s something else I mourn.  Borders and Barnes & Noble are big box stores in big box locations — and that means a schlep is required.  I miss the days when there was a bookstore in every strip mall (I’m still mourning the loss of Crown Books) and book shopping wasn’t such a destination.  You could pop into a bookstore and pick up a book while you were picking up your groceries — and, hey, that was a good thing.

The B. Dalton at Tysons actually closed a few years ago.  It was replaced by a Barnes & Noble.  The Waldenbooks is still at Montgomery Mall (correction:  Westfield Shopping Town: Montgomery — and, yes, an eye roll goes along with that) , but the mojo isn’t.  Romances aren’t shelved and displayed with an eye that let you know that they knew what was good — and they wanted you to find it, too.

Lack of consumer choice is never a good thing.  And the Borders and Barnes & Noble-ization of bookstores has sucked the life of this once big time brick and mortar shopper.  Since the demise of the heyday of mall bookstore, I haven’t come across a single store — and there are many in my area — that’s made me want to shop for romance.  That’s made it easy to shop for romance.  That’s made me feel as if they cared about romance.

And that is the single biggest reason why I got my Kindle.  And, while I love my Kindle and the ease and convenience is a massively wonderful thing, I miss book shopping.  I really, really do.

- Sandy AAR

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36 Responses to I Miss Mall Bookstores

  1. Kara says:

    I miss it too…I loved our Walden’s in the mall but it too was replaced by Borders. I hate the snide looks I get when I bring my romance novels to the counter!! Walden’s was great…we had a couple of clerks that new what was new and up and coming in the romance genre and I could always count on them to point me to a great book.

  2. Pamela says:

    I had forgotten about how much attention was paid to romances in mall bookstores until you mentioned this. I used to live in MD and the Towson Mall still had one the last time I was there a year ago.

    Also, I know this defeats the purpose of convenient book shopping but if you’re ever in the area of Westminister MD, there’s a great UBS called Willow Tree Books. 2/3rds was romances including a huge category selection. It sounds like it may be an hour away for you but I used to make a 30 min journey every few weeks to check it out. I didn’t talk much with the owner but she much know a lot to stock the place so well.

  3. Elaine says:

    Count me in the minority. I don’t miss any chain bookstore. I am lucky enough to live near one of the few independent bookstores left in the USA and I buy 90% of my books there. And the few I can’t buy there I get on amazon, a big supporter of independents.

  4. AAR Sandy says:

    Elaine, the independents in my area — Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks, and Olsons (which went out of business a year or so ago — completely reject romance.

    I love Kramerbooks at Dupont Circle because it is a wonderful bookstore cafe and has always been a place to see and be seen, but they wouldn’t even carry Nora. It’s not that I rejected independent bookstores, it’s that they rejected me.

    Pamela, always on the lookout for a great UBS. There is also one in Chantilly that is well worth the drive.

    Kara, you said it well. That’s my experience exactly.

  5. Lynn says:

    We have a wonderful Borders Express at our mall in Lancaster PA. One of the clerks is a romance expert and always knows where to find what I’m looking for. They are, of course, now going to close this great store. I’m hoping most of the employees get picked up at the Borders across the street, especially the Romance specialist!

  6. Wendy says:

    You totally nailed this one Sandy. The reason so many of those smaller mall chain stores were so fantastic was because they usually had at least one person on staff who “knew” and even “liked” romance. To this day the best, most well-stocked romance section I’ve ever seen was at a Waldenbooks in my hometown. All the current releases, some backlist titles, just wonderful. I never walked out of there empty-handed.

    Also, I think the size of the stores (smaller) made it easier for staff to get to know their clientele (and their reading habits) a bit more. Staff could hand-sell a new author/title while asking the customer how Junior was doing in school, or if they had any special plans for the holidays.

  7. AAR Sandy says:

    Lynn, my sympathies. And I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the romance-friendly employee especially moves to Borders.

    Wendy, I never got to know anybody in my two favorite mall chainstores. They just did such a great job with shelving that I knew that THEY knew. I loved going to both stores and, like you, rarely walked out empty handed. I still mourn the B. Dalton at Tysons. It was always such a pleasure to shop there. Barnes and Noble, my butt!

  8. Lynn Spencer says:

    I miss some of the mall stores, too. I’m lucky to live near a Borders that is very romance-friendly (and I work near another big-box bookstore that isn’t – quite the contrast!), but I still miss the B.Dalton back in my hometown. They had new releases out on time, they did all kinds of special features and the staff really got to know the regulars and recommended all kinds of good books!

  9. Maria R. says:

    I really do agree about the smaller stores. One of the biggest things I miss from my time in Wollongong (Australia) is the bookstore entirely dedicated to romance novels. I mean, entirely. It was wonderful. The storekeeper knew her clients tastes, let you know when the next releases were coming out and recommended new authors, which is essential for someone like me who, left to their own devices, would continue with re-reads and would have missed out on a whole world of incredible books.

    I really miss that store. Hmm, I wonder if she’s online…

  10. Lynn M says:

    I’m in the minority because I’m mourning the movement of all of the Barnes & Nobles from freestanding stores to mall locations. I hate to go to the mall, but now if I want to visit a brick and mortar store, I have to navigate the traffic and park a mile away and deal with the headaches of mall shoppers. Luckily the Borders near me is still freestanding.

    I was never a huge mall-bookstore shopper. I’d drop in when I was at the mall, but I never made it a destination. Now days, I either order on line or head to B&N or Borders for a specific title. I think I might be lucky – or just unobservant! – because I’ve never noticed any snotty looks from clerks when I’ve bough romance. I will say that they are clueless when it comes to advice or looking for a specific book and I’m pretty much on my own.

  11. Ellen AAR says:

    I just went to my soon to be closed Waldenbooks to get some December reads. I am going to miss it so much!! The romance section was large and very well stocked and there were several booksellers who knew and loved romance. Now the only place in town is Barnes and Noble and I don’t like their store. The romance section is skimpy, the booksellers are all haughty or clueless and I don’t like paying for a discount card.

    There’s a Borders store about 60 miles away, but that’s a long way to go and the sales tax there is about 9.5%

  12. Martha Lawson says:

    I have a small independent bookstore in the small city closest to me, where I do all my shopping. It’s 18 miles away and they carry NO romance novels. They are really good to order anything you want, but still that is not like going to a bookstore. The most romance friendly bookstore closest to me (100 miles away) is Books A Million in Southhaven, MS. They usually always have a good selection and the people are willing to help you find what you want. I don’t get to go often, maybe once every 3 months, but I love going and browsing with my list! Never come out empty handed. B&N on the other hand has their romance section WAY in the back in the dark!!!

  13. Elaine S says:

    We don’t have the number and size of US malls here in the UK. I alwyas check the Borders in a mall when I visit California and also a B&N but, frankly, I’d rather spend my time in the top rate UBSs I know in SoCal. I always come away with a couple of bags full of books from them. In the UK we have W H Smith (chick-lit and M&B and associated Harlequin stuff) and Waterstones (no romance). Borders in the UK has just gone into administration. Thank goodness for the internet and amazon, the Book Depository, etc. Otherwise you have to go to the big supermarket chains who have a fairly minimal romance selection, again mainly chick-lit and category romance. There are, however, many small, independent bookshops but I know of none that specialise or carry a comparatively large selection of romance as would, say, B&N in the US.

  14. Jennifer T says:

    I have to respond. I am in mourning. I was told just last week that the Waldenbooks in my hometown, Hickory, NC is closing in mid-January. This bookstore is great – the people that work at this particular store are readers of romance. They always stock the shelves the day they receive the books, not like some stores that can have books still in the stockroom a week or two later. They have a nice display at the very front of the store that is for new fiction – which is usually all of the popular romance – contemporary, paranormal, suspence, etc. They are always willing to look up any book on their system to see if it will be in the stores soon. They are even willing to let me look at their list of upcoming books so I will know if they are streetdated. They have even held books by my favorite authors at the desk for me even when I have not requested it.

    Now this store is closing (which is continuously busy) and I will now either have to shop at the larger retail chains like Walmart or Barnes & Noble (which neither care about romance novels) or order online.

    Life is just not fair.

  15. LeeB. says:

    I totally agree with the sentiments about missing Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, and the Brentanos that used to be in Westlake Mall in Seattle. The staff people always made sure books were on the shelves and never a snide look was given once I took my books to the cashier.

    ElaineS.: I just shopped at the Waterstones on Piccadilly in London this past weekend. They had two 5-6 bookshelf tiers of regular romance, not chick lit (that was mixed in with the fiction).

  16. Katie Mack says:

    I don’t have any personal experience with the type of mall bookstores mentioned, since I grew up out in the boonies and my sole book provider was the county library. But I still hate to hear about any romance-friendly bookstore closing.

    Luckily for me I live near two Borders stores that have great romance sections, even if they suck at getting new releases out on time. But the only place here that I would consider “romance-friendly” is one of the local UBSs. The owner loves romance, and is very well-read in all the subgenres, so customers are always asking her for “I like Author X, who else do you suggest?” type of recommendations. And the selection is absolutely incredible — she even carries most of the new releases, despite being a UBS. When I move to another city next month, I’m sure I’ll go through major withdrawal.

  17. mingqi says:

    in most of the malls around my area, the mall bookstore is basically a borders, which I think has a pretty great romance collection and sends out romance recommendation newsletters. And I’ve never had a borders staff look down on me for my reading material. One time, at one of the malls, there were little placards near underneath some romance books with staff recommendations. And one of the staff members shared the same name as me (my name isn’t very common) and seemed to love romantic comedy romances too! I was tempted to go up to the registers and ask to meet this person.

    I am sad though that they closed the B.Dalton at the smaller mall my family loves going to. Despite being very small, they had a great selection. I used to hang around there while my parents head off to Old Navy.

  18. elainec says:

    The Walmart in Ormond Beach, FL has a huge selection of romances: they shelve them facing out; they restock Monday, Wednesday, and Friday: and they sell them cheaper. This store even did an end cap of just Christmas romances and I’ve bought three already. I never really shopped at a Walmart before we moved far from a major town here in FL. In Michigan, there were ten bookstores within easy driving distance.

    I find I buy a lot more new books here, rather than waiting for Friends of the Library book sales. Usually, I buy 6 to 8 a month new – mostly at Walmart – sometimes at Target. Now for a harder to find writer or for hardcovers, I generally buy online.

    I do miss the one on one discussions about books some of the previous commentators spoke of above. Hey, that’s what these commentary blogs are for. I love reading the blogs everyday. :-)

  19. Renee says:

    Sandy, I can definitely relate to your article. I use to love going to a Waldenbooks near my office where as they would say in the TV show Cheers – everybody knew my name- and were always filled with suggestions about both mainstream and romance fiction I may want to try. Like you, Sandy, I have turned to my Sony reader and rarely go to the bookstore to browse.

  20. KristieJ says:

    I live about 2 minutes away from a rather large mall. There used to be two bookstores as well as a well stocked Walmart. If I couldn’t find a book at either of the book stores, I was sure to find it at Walmart. Then BOTH of the book stores closed and Walmart cut back their book shelf by about 80%. I’ve been horrified. Mind you there is a Chapters about 5 minutes away, but there are quite a few books they don’t stock on their shelves and I do a lot more buying online these days.

  21. Janet W says:

    Sue Grimshaw, the romance buyer for Borders, does a great job reaching out to the romance reading community and she is so enthusiastiac and knowledgeable! Check out her Book Chat at the Borders site and see for yourself. I like Borders because as someone else says, the books are well laid out, there’s free wifi, good discounts … and some Borders are even better than that! That being said, any closing makes me sad: I LOVE going to bookstores, large, small, independent or UBS.

  22. Camilla says:

    Amen – and I speak as a former B Dalton manager. I really miss stores with a large selection of mass markets. I hardly ever go to the mall anymore, b/c the bookstore was why I went. Barnes and Noble is just not the same.

  23. Cora says:

    Elaine S., in my experience Waterstones in the UK does carry romance, though they tend to have odd shelving practices. For example, I have found regular romance novels shelved under “erotic fiction” (including ironically a few sexless ones) in at least two Waterstones stores. Paranormals sometimes tend to end up shelved as horror or fantasy, romantic suspense is sometimes shelved as crime fiction or suspense. Of course, UK publishers tend to play up the suspense part with romantic suspense novels in general. I have the UK edition of Suzanne Brockmann’s The Unsung Hero and the backcover blurb makes it sound like a regular terrorist hunting suspense novel and doesn’t even mention the heroine.

    Though Borders in the UK is/was generally more romance friendly than Waterstones. I’ll be sorry to see them go. W.H. Smith is erratic.

    Regarding mall bookstores, I like them and I don’t really get the reasoning behind closing them either. Because not only will I usually step into the bookstore when I’m at the mall and often I will buy something, but I’m more likely to go to the mall with the good bookstore than to a mall with a crappy bookstore or with no bookstore at all in the first place.

  24. Shanna says:

    This is an interesting post for me becuase I am currently taking a small business course at the local community college and my business plan is starting a independent bookstore. I have been a lover of romance since high school and have always wanted my own bookstore and I toyed with the idea of specializing in romance but the look from my professor told me to scratch that idea and just go with a range of genres. Its given me hope to hear from all of you that a bookstore that takes pride in their romance section is wanted and could be a success if done right. Thank you all for restoring my faith in my idea, I needed it since the plan is due tomorrow.

  25. Patricia says:

    Sandy, IA w/you. Waldenbooks (then, Borders Express) was closed in Burbank, CA, & the closest Borders is in Glendale (about 5 mi. away), where the Romances are on the 2nd floor, AT THE BACK, where Seniors w/disabilities have to use an elevator to get up there. After all, lst floor must be kept available so that readers can drink their lattes & read a mag. How disgusting!

    At Waldenbooks, Romances were always respected & available, & the manager called that store “The Romance Store”. What a loss for Romance at UBSs.


  26. Barbara Mentzel says:

    Amen to all of the above! I worked for Waldenbooks for 15 years and was the resident romance expert at my stores. We had many “regulars” for whom we set aside the newest titles by their favorite authors. Unfortunately, after three of the stores I worked for were closed, one after another, I saw the handwriting on the wall. Now I work at the library and try to help the romance readers there. But I still miss Walden! It’s very convenient to order online or download books, but sometimes you just have to have it in your hands to know if it’s what you really want. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of discovering a new author on the shelf! Hopefully that experience will always be available in some form.

  27. Michael says:

    Like Barbara, I worked at Waldenbooks for a long time too (about 6 years) until they closed early last year. While I didn’t read romance at that time (to my regret), we were always very paranoid about getting the books out right away. I still remember training someone and telling them, “no matter what is going on, as soon as the series romance comes in, that becomes your number one priority!” I worked in a large format Waldenbooks and we had about 12 bays and two endcaps devoted to Romance. We also had several regulars who I knew by name. *Sigh* I miss that place.

  28. Blythe says:

    I think Denver in general is fairly romance friendly; I don’t get much sneering, and the romance section is usually right at the front and easy to find. I like both Borders and Barnes and Noble for different reasons (better deals at Borders, but I work right by a B&N and go there to read during my break several times a week). But I can manage to buy books practically anywhere. It’s a gift, really.

    What I miss more about mall bookstores is the idea of them, and the memory of them. I grew up in NJ and would check out both the Walden and the B. Dalton every time I went to the mall. I loved it there. I also worked for two different B. Daltons while I was in college. The first was shaped like a giant octagon (if anyone hails from El Toro/Lake Forest, CA, you might know what I am talking about). I LOVED that store all through high school, and my enthusiasm got me a job when I came home from college for the summer.

    Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy the cafes in the big box store. But sometimes I get a little nostalgic for a bookstore that just sold BOOKS.

  29. AAR Sandy says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s posts and I feel better that others remember BD and WD books so nostalgically. Things change, but for the bookselling business — from a romance reader’s perspective — the changes suck. I’ve had more experience with Borders than with B & N, but the stores I specifically mentioned in my post are horrendous. Don’t shelve books anywhere even remotely close to the lay down date, books shelved spine out so you can’t SEE anything, unhelpful sales associates with attitude — it’s all there. I spent a lot of money at Borders over the years just out of sheer desperation. Now I wish I had it all back.

  30. Barb says:

    Our (freestanding) B&N has a decent romance section, but you have to know what you want because B&N doesn’t really have a new releases area that means, new releases. (It seems to mean “here are books the publisher is paying us to push, even though they’ve been out a while.”) Unfortunately, there isn’t anyone at our B&N who seems to “own” the romance section (or kids section either, weirdly enough) so there isn’t any resource for finding books “like” some other author’s books, or hearing about a fabulous new book.

    Our local non-chair bookstores rather rigorously don’t stock romance, so I rather rigorously choose not to spend any book money there.

  31. AAR Sandy says:

    Barb: “rather rigorously” is dead on.

    There is an independent bookstore near me that takes snobby to new levels. I’ve got several author friends who live in the neighborhood — they are LOCAL authors — who’ve tried hard to get them to agree to booksignings…or, gee, even to stock their books who’ve had no luck at all. (They are big on the whole LOCAL author thing — well, when the LOCAL author isn’t a romance author, at any rate.) So, yes, I’ve got an attitude about that store. And I don’t spend money there either.

    I’ve also noted the same thing with B & N with regards to new releases.

  32. LinnieGayl says:

    Barb, that’s been my impression of the B&N here in town too. I just can’t figure out why the “new” books qualify as being “new,” as sometimes they’re three months old.

    I sooo miss Waldenbooks. I remember years ago getting free romance short stories there by SEP and Nora Roberts. Plus, there always seemed to be at least one staff member in each Waldenbooks I shopped in who truly embraced romance.

  33. Janet W says:

    I found it! Here’s a blog about a Borders bookseller in northern California: her name is Ellen. I wish I didn’t think people like her were a dying breed. Support brick and mortar!!


  34. AAR Sandy says:

    Janet W, she does sound wonderful. I haven’t run across someone like her in a VERY long time and never at a Borders or Barnes & Noble.

    My niece worked for Borders for a number of years and she testified to the behind the scenes attitudes. It wasn’t good. Book buying habits have changed and mine have changed with them.

    But I’d love to have a place to book shop again. Right now, despite having access to about 20 bookstores close by, I don’t have it. Makes me sad.

    I’m not going to support brick and mortar stores unless I feel they deserve it. But it the author of that blog were my bookseller, you’d bet I’d support her store.

  35. Rachel S says:

    As a current Receiving Manager at a Barnes & Noble, I too lament the wayside of B. Dalton’s and Walden’s. I find it ironic how B&N has a tendency to “look the other way” with romance…and yet its’ subsidiary B. Dalton strongly promoted romances. And I can speak of this experience since I originally began my B&N career at a B. Dalton. Once B&N and Books-a-Million opened their doors, others – B. Dalton and Little Professor Books – were forced to close. I elected to transfer to B&N.

    I am a romance genre junkie and have been since I was 12 years old. Don’t give up hope – I can attest there are romance junkies working at B&Ns. And if you ever shop at my B&N you will see the NEW romances presented on the New Release Bay.

    Contact B&N corporate, tell them you want more romance – bigger genre selections, better backlist assortment. I know how devoted romance readers are to the genre – romance was our #1 category when I worked at B. Dalton!

  36. xina says:

    I really miss Waldenbooks in my mall. I miss the older man who worked there who really knew his way around the romance genre. Sure, he was a little creepy (used to sneak up behind me and whisper if I found a good book…ewww) but he never rolled his eyes at my purchases and had actually read quite a number of the books I looked at or bought. That said, I love my Barnes and Noble. It is right by the Target that I go to and very easy for me to shop at Target, put the stuff in my car and just go to B&N. Also, The Mall of America still has Barnes and Noble. Actually, 2 of them.

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