Shelve Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) and Borders Group (OTC BB: BGPIQ.PK) under "L" for lost. Fools can learn many hard lessons both from Borders' bankruptcy and Barnes and Noble's failure to capitalize on its rival's suffering.

Barnes & Noble's most recent quarterly results made for more depressing reading than a Russian novel. The company posted a wider-than-expected quarterly loss of $59.4 million, or $1.04 per share. Although its sales rose 4%, same-store sales dropped 2.9%, sapped by potential patrons who were instead perusing Borders' liquidation sales at 200 stores.

Meanwhile, Borders keeps staggering along. A judge recently approved a bankruptcy deal to keep Borders afloat, although he decried its lenders' ruthless terms.

Don't feel too sorry for Borders, though. It suffocated under massive debt for ages, and even after the bankruptcy announcement, it sought to reward its executives handsomely with a potential $8.3 million in bonuses, including $1.7 million for President Mike Edwards. For those who lost big-time on their investments in Borders, that just adds insult to injury.

A literary tour de force
Along with the housing bust, we may be experiencing weakness among the big boxes, a retail format that made more sense back when consumers felt more comfortable spending.

Yet even in today's challenging climate, I still contend that independent booksellers that find particular niches can do well. Witness Washington, D.C.'s Busboys & Poets, a cutting-edge eatery, bookstore, and fair trade market. The shop bills itself as a "gathering place" featuring literary readings and other culturally relevant events.

Busboys' model seems to be working just fine. The company will soon open a new D.C.-area location, with ideas for potential Busboys locations in far-flung locales such as San Francisco, Harlem, and Denver in coming years. On the side, founder Andy Shallal has also opened a concept called Eatonville.

Even more interestingly, Busboys & Poets is a B Corporation. B Corporations may not be publicly traded, but they pioneer novel and positive ways of doing business. Perhaps big boxes like Borders and Barnes & Noble faltered because they failed to bring something similarly special, compelling, or inspiring to their industry.

On track for a happier ending
Thankfully, some companies consistently set the pace instead of losing the plot. Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) has become a huge competitor to big-box retailers of all stripes. So far, Amazon has an amazing track record of staying ahead of the curve instead of falling behind it.

Barnes & Noble shares recently soared amid rumors of a bid by Liberty Media (Nasdaq: LINTA), which could provide a deus ex machina sort of happy ending. Overall, though, investors should steer clear of companies that are losing the plot, and seek out innovators writing bold new chapters in their own businesses. Plenty of publicly traded companies share the novel spirit of Busboys & Poets.

Which companies have plotted themselves into a corner, and which do you think thrive for adding unexpected twists to their industries' stories? Add your thoughts in the comments box below.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. For more on this and other topics, check back at Fool.com, or follow her on Twitter: @AlyceLomax. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.