Last month, corporate parent Borders announced they will soon be closing 200 Waldenbooks book stores in communities nationwide. Current Waldenbooks employees have come forward to alert the public that the company plans to dispose of many unsold books in the cheapest, easiest, least responsible way possible - by trashing them.
"This is going to be happening in all the Waldenbooks stores at the end of their liquidation sales to anything left on the shelves," said Heather L., a Waldenbooks employee. "And it gives us all stomach aches to think about."
In response, these employees have helped organize a Facebook campaign asking Borders to work with publishers to find a way to donate any unsold books to libraries or other nonprofits instead of destroying them. More than 1,500 Borders customers & employees, public library supporters, and other book lovers have signed on so far to protest this colossal impending waste of unsold books.
The Waldenbooks locations are scheduled to close their doors in January, 2010. Meanwhile, libraries and nonprofits around the country have been hit hard by the Great Recession. Library branches are serving more and more people in the face of budget cuts. Nonprofits are struggling with decreased government and corporate funding and shrinking private donations.
There is enormous need right now for any kind of helping hand extended to charitable causes. And news of Borders' plans to destroy unsold books after its Waldenbooks liquidation sales has touched a nerve.
"Holy cow!! So many reasons that this is INSANE!," said Donna Higdon Hollenbeck of Montgomery, AL. "So many worthy places these books could go to. Come on and be reasonable." "This is a perfect example of the waste overwhelming our civilization," observed Myke Yeskewicz of Providence, RI. "I'm willing to cut my Borders Reward card in half if this is done," said Del Snow of Chapel Hill, NC.
Former Waldenbooks employees say they have previously witnessed and participated in the destruction of unsold books. "I used to work at a Waldenbooks and we would trash books, tons of books, like every two weeks," said Brooke Bennett, a former employee from Little Rock, AR. "It just killed me."
Known in the bookselling industry as "dumpstering," this method of book disposal is standard practice not only at Borders-owned stores, but at many other chain book stores and mass retailers.
"I work at a drugstore in New Hampshire where they do this all the time as well, 100's of books get tossed, it's crazy," said James C. "Ever wonder what they do with all those paperback novels that disappear from the shelves?" asked Cory Wilson of Huntington, WV. "Covers get ripped off and the text goes into the dumpster." "This is totally true," said Mary P. "I used to work at Walmart and they would tear off the front cover and throw the rest in the compactor."
Occasionally this practice makes headlines. Over the past few years, local TV stations have reported on dumpsters full of trashed books behind places like a Barnes & Noble in Dallas, and a B. Dalton Bookseller closing down in Ohio.
Dumpstered books behind Dallas Barnes & Noble, 2007
Yet there is surprisingly little consumer awareness of how the publishing industry's outdated business model results in unsold books literally being thrown away. By shipping books to retailers on consignment terms, thus allowing the return of unsold merchandise, the publishing industry operates unlike all other manufacturers. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of books are returned by bookstores annually. Between 65 and 95 percent of returned books are pulped - destroyed by publishers.
But it costs money to ship returned books back. Thus was born the practice of stripping covers from books, only sending back the covers, and book stores themselves destroying the remainder of the unsold books. Dumpstering happens every day in large chain book stores. But how many customers and citizens know the truth?
"One of the ways this effort is already making a difference is by spreading awareness," said Waldenbooks employee Heather L., who is one of the Facebook campaign's co-organizers. "If we are serious about living green, we need to pressure companies like Borders to change their ways."
So far, Borders' responses to consumers who have e-mailed in protest show they are unwilling to own up to their wasteful business practices.
"We do not expect to have any remaining product to donate once we complete clearance sales at the 200 Waldenbooks stores," reads one canned response from Borders Customer Care. "We sincerely expect to have virtually no product left - our goal is to sell everything. Therefore, we do not expect to have product to donate or to dispose of."
Not a mention of what current and former employees agree is standard operating procedure for Borders, Waldenbooks and other chain book stores. Dumpstering is a dirty little secret of the bookselling and publishing industries.
One concerned Borders customer e-mailed CFO Mark Bierley, only to learn he'd deleted her e-mail unread! Georgia resident Denise C. says she "used microsoft outlook to send the email and it gives you the option to have a delivery request sent and a read receipt." Here's the reply she received:
Borders corporate headquarters in Ann Arbor, MI
To: Mary Davis (Corporate Affairs); Ron Marshall (BGI); Mark Bierley (Finance)
Subject: DON'T THROW AWAY THE BOOKS
Sent: Thu, 10 Dec 2009 13:46:32 -0500
was deleted without being read on Thu, 10 Dec 2009 18:53:12 -0500<<
If you'd like to let Borders executives know how you feel about this issue, you can e-mail CEO Ron Marshall - email@example.com. Or CFO Mark Bierley - firstname.lastname@example.org (try the subject line, "Why Are You Deleting Customers' E-mails Unread?"). Or call Borders corporate headquarters toll-free at 1-800-243-7510 (press 9 for customer care). Please visit the Facebook page and help spread the word about this campaign!
Erik Ose is a veteran of Democratic campaigns in North Carolina and blogs at The Latest Outrage.