Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Imagine a world without bookstores...

Sandra Parshall

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!"
Some smaller chains have survived. The southern company Books-A-Million, which has been around since 1917, has 232 stores and is expanding into some of the spots vacated by Borders. Zondervan, a subsidiary of HarperCollins that had 126 stores 20 years ago, was sold and renamed Family Christian Stores and now has 283 outlets. Hastings Entertainment has 146 and Half Price Books has 113. Cokesbury, which had 40 stores in 1991 and increased that number to 76 before scaling back, now operates 57 outlets.

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?


Paul said...

And yet the music industry seems to be thriving under the new delivery model.

Sandra Parshall said...

Ah. but a music CD has nowhere near the magic of a printed book in the hand.

Kathleen Delaney said...

They'll have missed out on a lot. Wandering through a bookstore, or meandering through the library, its a feeling that can't be duplicated. I have taken my grandkids on signings, the latest one at Fiction Addiction in
Greensville, SC. Couldn't locate my grandaughter, who is 10. Found her lying on her tummy in the back of the store, reading. We bought the book. Kathleen Delaney

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Apples and oranges: with downloadable music, consumers can HEAR a clip of every song on an album before they buy or buy individual songs rather than 3 they want and 7 they'll never listen to. Some brick & mortar record stores had listening booths, but I never used one--did you?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Another reason B&N will survive: its stores display fewer and fewer books and more and more of what in New York we called tchochkes.

Patg said...

I find 'lounging' in a bookstore to be fun, but unless it is a used bookstore, I don't buy many books. Why? Because they don't keep backlists.
And, IMHO, the internet 'has' majorly brought product to the small town and isolated areas. Sure, they always had mail order, but not with the options we have today.
And, of course, we are thinking with our generational POV. If it turns out to be worth anything, it will survive, otherwise change is the name of the game.

Sandra Parshall said...

Pat, Amazon is now the #1 bookseller in the US. The disappearance of bookstores doesn't mean people are reading less. Books are readily available online. Amazon offers backlists -- and the store is open 24 hours a day. But a physical bookstore is still a special place (if it actually offers a good selection of books, and that's becoming rarer).

Liz, B&N stores now seem to think selling Nooks is more important than selling books. Walk in and you'll see a big display of Nooks where bookshelves and tables used to be.

Beth Groundwater said...

Very informative article, Sandy, and thanks for sharing it with us! I was just at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Trade Show in Denver and talked to owners of independent bookstores who came up to my signing table for a free copy of Deadly Currents. Many are hanging on by their fingernails and if the recession lasts much longer, they'll be closing soon. Others are doing okay, though, and I think what makes the difference is that they've become de-facto community centers for their towns. They host all kinds of meetings, not just book clubs or writing groups, and they serve coffee or tea and/or other goodies and provide seating areas to encourage folks to linger in the store. They also are very active in promoting local authors and setting up signings, panels, workshops and other events for them.

Sandra Parshall said...

Keeping an independent store going is a tremendous amount of work, and in the end it all comes down to how much income they can generate. There may be communities where residents don't care enough to keep a store alive.

Warren Bull said...

Thanks to Beth for bringing up independent bookstores. My all-time favorite I Love a Mystery seems to be coming back to life after almost closing. Stores where staff can interpret mangled titles and answer questions like, "What would a 13-year-old girl with a tragic outlook on life enjoy? have at least a fighting chance of survival.

Sandra Parshall said...

That was such great news about I Love a Mystery.

Julia Buckley said...

Here's an interesting little detail: on my town's main street we had three bookstores all within a block of each other: Two big chains and one independent. The chains, Borders and Barbara's, are both gone. The independent remains and is getting all the lost business from the other two.

Independent bookstores have some life in them after all.

Sandra Parshall said...

The new independent store in our area sells wine as well as books and has wine tsstings. They also host a writing group.

Rhonda Lane said...

Thank you for this round-up article, Sandy. When I lived in a rural farming community. the only place to buy a book was the drugstore with its rotating rack of mass market paperbacks. No hardcovers. We borrowed those from the library.

I live in the suburbs now. A nearby indie bookstore took out all the shelves and installed tables for workshops and readings. Unfortunately, then tend to be sparsely attended.