Bookstores–Headed for Extinction?

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA

Two months ago our town had two bookstores– a very healthy Borders store and a Main Street Christian bookstore that had been around (and vigorous) for more than two decades. Today we have none. We now need to drive twenty-five miles to visit a bookstore. What happened?

The Borders story is well known. Despite every table in the coffee shop always being filled at our Borders and long lines queued up to make purchases, it didn’t matter. Mistakes made by corporate Borders spelled the doom of our literary watering hole.

The unintended consequence was our Christian bookstore. Our town used to hold the Guinness record for having more churches per capita than any city in America. The Borders buyers understood this and stocked a huge religious section and an equally huge inspirational fiction section. When Borders began the long liquidation process, everything went on sale, eventually ending up at 70% off. I think the protracted sale went on for about five months. Who knew the independent Christian store didn’t have the cushion to hold out until Borders sold the last heavily discounted Christian title?

So now we have no place to gather, browse and buy books. *sigh* It’s kept me worrying about the future of brick & mortar bookstores.

I wish I could be as optimistic about bookstores as I am about the future of traditional publishing, of agents and of writers. Just today I read that another bookstore, Sweetbriar, is closing in Davis, California–a college town. If you want to see a heartrending collection of photos, follow this link.

So what’s wrong? Have we stopped reading? Stopped buying books? Or is it something else?

First off, we are still reading. Librarian Judy Gann cited the following statistics on the Library Insider website:

  • 2010 Harris Poll showed that 65% of Americans used their library in the past year either in person, by telephone, or by computer.
  • A 2008 CNN/U.S. News poll found that Americans make 3.6 billion visits to the library per year; 80% borrow books from the library on a regular basis.

And plenty of us love books, buy books and visit bookstores. The reasons bookstores are fighting to stay alive are as varied as the businesses themselves but let me cover some of the challenges:

  • Online sales have certainly hurt brick & mortar stores. It’s hard to compete with the convenience and discount prices of the behemoths like Amazon.
  • And speaking of fighting the discounters, who knew independent bookstores would end up competing not only with giants like B & N, Borders and Books a Million, but that they’d face competition from heavy discounters like Costco, Sam’s and Walmart?
  • Much of the problem for indie bookstores has less to do with books and more to do with the general business climate in America. It has become increasingly difficult to make ends meet with all the regulations, skyrocketing rent, insurance costs, taxes and fees. I never owned a bookstore, but before we closed our small manufacturing business, we were paying more than 25% of our gross income on insurances– liability, worker’s comp and health insurance. We’re long past the days of opening a little storefront and living over the store.

Is there any way to stave off the inevitable?

  • If a store owns the property and isn’t at the mercy of regular rent hikes, it is far more able to ride out tough times. Nothing spells doom for a small retail establishment like losing the lease or facing a rent hike.
  • Just like writers, a store that creates a distinctive brand for itself is better placed to endure. It needs to becomes a destination business.
  • Borders and B& N had the right idea in combining a gathering place–a coffee shop–and a bookstore. When a store becomes an important hangout, it avoids the danger of looking empty and unsuccessful.
  • Hosting events, writing groups and signings takes a lot of work but creates a sense of community ownership. We writers are always ready to lend a hand with this.

So what’s the future of the independent bookstore? The jury is still out. But one thing I’ve observed is that everything cycles around again. If we end up with nothing but online stores, just watch. A new generation will reinvent wonderful shops, and people will rediscover the joy of gathering to talk books. Perhaps most books will be digital, but many of us will always collect antiquarian books, first editions and literary treasure.

What do you think? Will bookstores endure? Tell us about your favorite bookstore. What is it that draws you there?

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19 Comments

  • Giora says:

    Practically, consumers don’t need bookstores, i.e. stores that mainly sell books. As you posted above, they can buy their books at other retailers like Costco and Walmart. The main book store chain in Canada, for example, is transforming itself into a retailer, which also sells books. While bookstores are wonderful, the future might lead to areas selling books inside retailers like J.C. Penney. Have a wonderful weekend, Wendy.

  • The things I miss most about bookstores are atmosphere, and variety. Borders was my favorite of the large chains, for some very small (but important) reasons. They were not freezing cold inside, walls were painted with bright, uplifting colors, and there was always a veritable feast of books set out in attractive LOGICAL order to meander through. A most pleasant way to shop for something you wanted, but didn’t quite know what it was, yet.

    Our local Christian bookstore is something of a phenomenon, in that not only does it have all of the above qualities, but there are cozy clusters of comfortable chairs and coffee tables scattered throughout the store in quiet corners, where there are always “divine encounters” going on. No kidding. Once, there was such an atmosphere of miracles in that place (a lot of prayer goes on there) that people began to be drawn from every corner of the store to participate. Even the workers. I will never forget that day.

    Lately, the shelves of the remaining bookstores in our town (and even the library) have not only been dwindling, some even stand stark and empty. Which makes me think the only reason people who love these places might stop patronizing them would be simply because there is nothing much there, anymore.

    Perhaps it’s time for some innovative marketers to come along and reintroduce the “Dime Novels” concept of getting less expensive books into the hands of more readers. Or maybe even bring back the small, independent book stalls on sidewalks that were so popular around the world in the early part of the twentieth century. Truth is, the price of books (even though the industry can always explain away the high costs) has made regular purchases prohibitive for today’s struggling families. So, personally, I’m praying that some solutions to this particular problem will materialize in one quick hurry. Because how I would hate to see the demise of such a glorious pastime — for young and old, alike — as book browsing!

  • Actually, I seldom make a point to visit bookstores anymore. The only time I do, I happen to be out, doing something else, and I’ll see a bookstore a stop. Half the time, I don’t purchase anything. I usually purchase all my books as Kindle downloads.

    I always go to the inspirational fiction section to see what’s on the shelf. I also see if my book happens to be in stock.

  • David Todd says:

    There’s not much I like better than going to our nearby Barnes and Noble, browsing the stacks, picking something off the discount table, something off the history, something off either the poetry or writers section, plus a couple of writing magazines, going into the coffee shop, buying the largest house blend avaialable and reading something in each item.

    The loss of bricks & mortar stores is an unfortunate, natural consequence of the Internet era. Some will survive, but they will be fewer and farther in between. Possibly the most successful in the future will be used book stores that put in a coffee shop. Half library, half bookstore, half coffee shop. Er, someone else can do the math on that.

  • I posted these links on Facebook today http://t.co/0OUZ5WMy and http://t.co/78oYHeVB about the Espresso Book Machine, which can print hard copies of thousands of books. Each one only takes a few minutes. I understand those are mostly found on the East Coast so far, but as more bookstores get them it should help their sales because they won’t need nearly as much shelf and storage place or have to worry about returns. Remaining shelf space can be used for things not available as e-books.

  • It saddens me to see bookstores close. Why? I don’t know, because I rarely get a chance to go in one. I think when it hit me hard was when we were in NC this year. The bookstore I have visited almost every year in over a decade had the majority of its books packed up. The worker said it had been like that for months, but the owners–who also ran the local newspaper–hadn’t said they were closing. He told me he doubted they would be open in 2012 when we returned. A month after our visit, the bookstore in downtown Manteo, NC sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Irene. I don’t think they have reopened yet.

    Like you, I believe everything is cyclical. I’m hoping that means the trend of the closing bookstores will one day pass over to a new surge of indie booksellers who find the key to success.

    Thanks for a wonderful week of posts, Wendy.

  • Larry Carney says:

    I see libraries taking on the role that bookstores had as places where folks would gather to discuss their favorite authors, hold book club meetings, etc. So a place for obtaining physical books and discussing them will certainly be around in the future, even if there won’t be any physical retail settings for books.

  • Bonnie Grove says:

    People tend to draw straight lines between paper books and e-readers. But I suspect there is another demon at work in the mix.

    Save a book store: turn off your TV.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m fortunate to live in a town with quite a few bookstores. From the B&N at the mall to Mr. K’s Used Books. I think the community in Asheville, NC, tends to be very bookstore supportive (in part due to lots of local authors). Indie bookstore Malaprop’s has events ALL the time and does an amazing job of supporting regional authors. Of course, when your those authors are Charles Frazier, Robert Morgan, Vicki Lane and Ron Rash, it’s a smidge easier. Check them out at http://www.malaprops.com

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Just as some local mom and pop stores have figured out a way to survive among a viable Walmart threat, so too, some bookstores will figure out a way to survive despite Amazon’s discounting of printed books and the proliferation of e-books. Unfortunately, there will be many more bookstores who won’t make it.

  • Larry, you could very well be right. Our library trustees were trying to get the town to vote on building a new library and it seemed to me like it was more of a B&N type set up–cafe and everything.

  • Cheryl, I’ve seen several new libraries that look like that.

  • Nikole Hahn says:

    Our only Barnes and Noble is going out of the mall only due to the owner doubling the rent. Citizens have petitioned the corporate office to try to get them to move to another location in town. So far no go.

  • Nikole Hahn says:

    And I don’t shop Walmart.

  • Anne Love says:

    This is a great topic for blogging today. I love the small town bookstore experience. Without our small town bookstore, I would now have to drive 30-40 min to get to either Family Christian Bookstores, or B & N. I live in a semi-rural area in Indiana.
    I advocate supporting your local bookstores! I try to order from them instead of the internet. I take my teenagers there for coffee and browsing on Saturdays sometimes.
    I would challenge others to interview your local bookstore owners about these issues. I did and learned that the sale of gifts, not books, is what keeps our local store afloat. See my blog article, Spotlight on Nappanee’s Local Bookstore. Perhaps you could spotlight your own local shops on your blogs! :o)

  • Jennifer Wyatt says:

    My support and money will go to the small independent and used bookstores that are left. I will also support library used book sales. I have found many “precious” finds at library used book sales. My issue with libraries is that you always have to return the book. I will not buy my books at Walmarts(God Forbid) Costco or Pennys or even Krogers (my grocery store)All of the above stores do not have the book knowledge to sell items worth buying. Those pictures you portrayed , especially the ones of Borders are indicative of what happens when corporate execs dont listen to the people working in the stores. It is always a real tragedy when technology replaces the charm knowledge atmosphere and pure bliss of a neighborhood book store. My fighting slogan is this: fight back ! Do not give your money to Amazon .com. If you must have a Kindle also make it a point to frequent small independents and used book stores. The other telling point is that you cannot browse as well on the internet !

  • Joseph says:

    Why would a bookstore carry your books if you admit to not supporting them.

  • KATHERINE HALLMANN says:

    Oi Wendy, eu sou brasileira e falo pouco inglês.
    Estou fazendo curso de Arquitetura e Urbanismo e o meu tema do trabalho de graduação é uma livraria. Achei muito interessante suas observações e concordo que nós (arquitetos e outras pessoas) devemos reinventar a livraria de um modo atrativo para não acabar com esse espaço maravilhoso.

  • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

    I agree, Katherine. I am also very influenced by my surroundings. I’d love to hear how as an architect you can envision reinventing the bookstore.

    Auto-translate: Concordo, Katherine. Estou também muito influenciada pelos meus arredores. Eu adoraria ouvir como um arquiteto pode imaginar reinventar a livraria.

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