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:
- A 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?