IMO what killed them was the shifting of corporate focus by their parent companies. After Barnes & Noble and Borders took of in the ’90s, both B. Dalton and Waldenbooks became de-facto outlets for their corporate families and started filling the fronts of their stores with worthless bargain book sections: poorly conceived clearance aisles filled with low quality books that should never have been published in the first place. The over-abundance of loss leaders shrunk the traditional book selections to a shadow of their former selves and ruined the two chains’ reputations as sources for quality books.
Even though Barnes & Noble corporate eventually saw the light and integrated the Barnes & Noble search and order capabilities into their B.Dalton mall stores, Borders corporate steadfastly refused to bring Waldenbooks in line with Borders search and order capabilities until Waldenbooks got so small they couldn’t support their own system.
It doesn’t take a retail genius to figure out that the companies were de-emphasizing the mall stores in favor of a larger, more profitable format and that the reduced selection of a modern Waldenbooks and B.Dalton would eventually make they easy to dispose of if the mall business never recovered (and it hasn’t so far).
It’s sad to think of how many small and medium sized cities will now have no new general-interest bookstore thanks to B. Dalton and Waldenbooks’ closures. Danville, Va. and Bluefield, W.Va. immediately come to mind: somewhat isolated cities that don’t have enough college-educated customers to be considered for a book superstore but yet have enough population to support one. Cities like these will be solely at the mercy of Walmart and the like, which only stock books they figure will sell to a mainstream audience and little else.
This is an embarrassing and depressing situation. Why should people in typically sized American cites have to travel 60 miles or more just to buy a non-New York Times bestseller book in person? I just hope that a company like Books-A-Million will step up and bring some essential choice and selection back to these towns.