Thursday, July 21, 2016

Alas, poor Hastings. I knew it well.

Well, that is that. The other shoe had dropped and the fat lady has taken the stage. Hastings Entertainment, the entertainment superstore chain so prevalent in mid-sized cities in Texas and throughout the mid- and southwest, is to be liquidated by October 31 after a bankruptcy auction attracted only bidders interested in carving up the corpse.

I'm in something of a depressed mood today--mostly for reasons you folks wouldn't get or would find absurd--but the demise of Hastings is a significant contributor. There's nothing about this that I don't find depressing:

Bidding on the beleaguered company in a Delaware bankruptcy court ended Wednesday afternoon, and according to the agency agreement an “everything must go” sale, which ends Oct. 31 at the latest, will be the end of the Amarillo retail chain’s story.

Hilco Merchant Resources LLC and Gordon Brothers Retail Partners LLC, two financial consultation and management companies, bought the company in a contractual joint venture.

The documents say that these companies, which will oversee the liquidation, will be authorized to advertise the move as a "store closing," "sale on everything," "going out of business" sale.
Here's the deal: Hastings was the first bookstore I ever went into that wasn't based in a shopping mall and named Waldenbooks or B.Dalton. Compared to those, Hastings was huge. They had books! They had music! They had movies! Aisles that seemed to go on forever! Realize that I grew up in a small Texas town that only ever had one bookstore--open for about three weeks total, if I recall correctly--and my reading matter was wholly dependent upon the local library, semi-annual trips to "big city" malls and the Science Fiction Book Club. Hastings was nirvana. Oh, sure, years later we got Borders and Barnes & Noble, but I always preferred Hastings when given the choice.

I'd known they were in trouble for some time. Around November 2009, with the Great Recession still raging, I was wandering the stacks in the San Marcos location and overhead an employee meeting going on in the back corner. The store manager was going over the store's losses the previous months, and I was staggered. The store was hemorrhaging tens of thousands of dollars a month. I was stunned--in fact, I eavesdropped a bit longer just to be certain I'd heard right. I'd heard right. I got a sinking feeling that this location wouldn't be long for the world, but I was proven wrong. A few years ago, they dramatically remodeled the store. Business seemed to pick up considerably. I thought they were finally in the clear.

To some extent, Hastings fell victim to the same forces that killed off the larger Borders. Pressure from Amazon and their pricing-at-a-loss strategy ate away at Hastings' book revenue. Digital downloads and streaming services wiped out the music side of things. Netflix and video-on-demand killed the video rental market. But I saw Hastings make changes. Movies and music were deemphasized. The chain added used books to its inventory, sort of a Half-Price Books hybrid. Gaming, pop culture and comics merchandise were added, and regular social events like gaming nights became part of the landscape. We saw people going and buying. It looked like the chain had carved out a new, specialty niche for itself.

Turns out it was too little, too late.

Over the years, as I've walked through the front doors, I've always looked at the "new arrivals" display with envy. I've seen many friends' names on those new books, and one day, I promised myself, my book would be there to greet customers as they entered the store. Last month, I actually contacted the Hastings stores in New Braunfels and San Marcos about scheduling a book signing the very day the chain filed for bankruptcy--which I learned of about 10 minutes after sending my email. I felt so terrible for the person at the other end who had to respond to my blissfully ignorant query. In a fit of selfishness, felt just a terrible for myself. I'd never achieve that goal of walking in and having my own book greet me. New Braunfels will now be without a book store of any sort. With the San Marcos location closing as well, the nearest option is Half Price Books, which is great in its own way, but not the same. To reach The Twig in San Antonio or BookPeople in Austin, I have to drive an hour in either direction--and that's if traffic cooperates.

To top it off, my kids are going to be very upset. I've raised them to view going to the bookstore as a thing to look forward to, and now that's gone. I don't know what I can do about it, other than be sad with them. Farewell, Hastings. You will be missed.

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