Do you still have a bookstore within quick driving (or walking) distance of your house? Or is the closest one so far away that it’s easier to go online and order what you want? Do you have a store nearby but still find shopping online easier (and often cheaper)?
It’s a vicious cycle: online sales (including, now, e-books) eat into the profits of brick-and-mortar stores; the stores start closing and whole chains collapse; the disappearance of stores sends more people online to shop for books.
I live in the Washington, DC, area, where Crown Books was born in 1977, and I remember the TV ads in which a handsome young Robert Haft sat atop a stack of books, looked into the camera, and declared, “Books cost too much. That’s why I opened Crown Books.” In a sense, he was announcing the end of bookselling as we knew it. Not that Crown was the first bookseller to discount new books – Barnes and Noble led the way in 1975 by offering N.Y. Times bestsellers at 40% off cover price. But Crown discounted everything, and that policy threatened stores that charged full price.
Twenty years ago, Crown had 257 stores in large markets around the U.S. It no longer exists – the company was torn apart by acrimonious legal wrangling within the Haft family – but discounting has become the norm in bookselling and “Books cost too much” is an article of faith for many readers. Even small independent stores offer frequent-buyer cards that allow regular customers to buy at a discount. No bookseller, though, can consistently match Amazon’s prices.
Whatever the root cause, or causes, brick-and-mortar bookstore chains have declined dramatically in the past 20 years, with only Barnes & Noble holding steady. According to a report in Publisher’s Weekly, B&N had 1,343 outlets (counting college stores) in 1991, and today has 1,341. The number has been higher, and the chain has closed some stores in recent years, but so far it doesn’t appear in danger of collapsing under pressure from online retailers and the rise of e-books. The company’s popular Nook and its own e-book business are helping B&N stay alive.
Smaller chains haven’t fared as well. Waldenbooks, a subsidiary of Borders with 1,268 outlets in 1991, died along with the parent company. Bookland Stores, with 101 outlets in 1991, no longer exists. Others that have disappeared include Lauriat’s (48 stores in 1991), Encore Books (65 outlets in 1991; merged with Lauriat’s in 1994), Kroch’s & Brentano’s (19 stores in 1991), and Tower Books (13 outlets). B. Dalton, purchased by B&N in the late 1980s, closed its last stores in 2010.
|"Books cost too much!"|
The U.S. had 3,293 chain bookstores in 1991 and now has 2,206, by PW’s count. A few new independents have sprung up recently, but many long-established indies stores have gone bankrupt.
Where will it end? Will we become a nation where only residents of large cities can walk into a real bookstore, hold new books in their hands and flip through the pages before deciding whether to buy? If we are headed in that direction, does it matter? Can a sparse scattering of tiny independents with limited stock take the place of sprawling superstores with aisle after aisle of printed books available for browsing?
What does access to a brick-and-mortar bookstore mean to you? Will you miss the chains if they all disappear? Do you think children who will never step inside a bookstore and choose books for themselves will have missed out on anything?