Sunday, August 08, 2010

Who Will Turn Out the Lights in America's Last Bookstore

First there were locally owned, independent bookstores; then came the first of the big box bookstores to steal their market share and force the locals to close their doors by the thousands.  Next came the even-bigger box bookstores to knock off those earlier indie-killers - and we said goodbye to Crown Books and B. Dalton, and learned to live with the colorless, watered-down version of Walden Books.

Suddenly Barnes & Noble and Borders seemed to share the national book market except for the surprise of something called a Books-A-Million store that popped up every once in a while.  Mass market book consumers rejoiced at the low price of bestsellers, while hardcore book lovers grieved at the way the book market was being controlled by just two giant corporations.  Prices were down, but so was choice.

Then along came a little internet startup,, to challenge the dominance of the Big 2 book retailers.  Barnes & Noble and Borders, used to having things their way, and not immediately recognizing the challenge of competing with an online bookseller the likes of Amazon, were slow to react.  So slow, in fact, that Borders has been losing money and closing stores for years in a desperate struggle just to keep its own doors open.  And now, even Barnes & Noble, the company that once seemed headed toward total dominance of the market, has put itself up for sale because it is not likely to otherwise survive into the next decade.

But even Amazon should not get complacent because, with the increasing acceptance of e-books, even a giant like Amazon is going to be challenged for market share.  Barnes & Noble did just that with the introduction of its Nook e-book reader but does not seem to have regained much, if any, market share in the process.  Sony tried it, probably with even less success than Barnes & Noble (just a gut feel on my part because I do not have the numbers to verify it).  But hold on, Amazon, because here comes Mr. Apple, Steve Jobs, with his iPad, a not-so-little gizmo that can function pretty well as an e-book reader among the countless other things it can do that the Kindle cannot.  Mr. Apple is, in fact, so powerful that he has already, much to Amazon's chagrin, changed the whole pricing structure for e-books.

My question is this: what are you going to do when bookstores go the way of CD stores?  Remember those things?  I, for one, did not even realize they were disappearing until they were almost all gone, but I am a bit more aware of what is happening this time around.

Someone please tell me this means a return, at least, to the days of the local independent bookstores, a step back toward the way we were a few decades ago.  I am willing to pay higher prices (and do it all the time) if it means that I can still drive to a nice bookstore on Saturday mornings, especially to one that still feels like a real bookstore.  Alas, Sven Birkets of the Wall Street Journal does not believe this will be the case.  See this article, "Bye-Bye Bookstores," for his thoughts.

Thankfully, I already own a pretty good library of my own and a room into which I can escape to be surrounded by books.  Perhaps that is where we are heading - a return to the fantastic home libraries of centuries past.  These days, I find myself singing the old song, "Stop the World and Let Me Off," with a whole new appreciation for its sentiments.


  1. Hi Sam - this past year, here in Ottawas, I've seen the closing of our mystery specialty store. We now have two independent bookstores left in Ottawa, and the chain store Chapters, which at least is Canadian-owned. I try to buy most of my books at either the independents or Chapters. I have been building my library too, afraid one day would come when books would be limited in some way. I don't like being a doomsayer, and I prefer to think that books will find a way to exist far into the future. I do think we are facing a challenge with the e-reader, and with the idea of copyright that Amazon is forcing authors and readers to think about. I do think, however, that there will always be second-hand bookshops for us to lose ourselves in :-) it's a small consolation, and I hope that independent bookstores do find a way to exist in this century. Can you imagine going into a city and not being able to find a bookstore? how terrible.

  2. I'm really hoping we will see the comeback of the Independent bookstore. It's hard for me to imagine a world without bookstores. But you are right, the CD/record stores disappeared and we hardly seemed to notice until they were gone. There is one left in my immediate area. I sure don't want that to happen to the bookstores.

  3. Susan, you hit on some great points. I do believe that bookstores will survive in some form; I just wonder if the floor space will be taken up by computers for ordering e-books, CDs, DVDs, greeting cards, and a few books.

    Used bookstores will thrive, I suspect, in this environment but, like you, I have enough books in the house to last me the rest of my life if it comes to something like least 10 years of reading to get through all of them even one time and then I can start over again. :-)

  4. Kathleen, that's what spooks me a bit. I used to spend hours every month sifting through music to see what I would discover. Seldom did a week go by that I failed to add some music to my collection...then, poof! And all those shops were gone in what seemed to me like an overnight disappearance. I'm going to pay better attention this time.

  5. I hit 2 Barnes & Noble stores during my vacation and I was really struck at the staleness of the selection.

  6. That's my biggest complaint about the way that B&N and Borders dominate the book market, Susan. To a large degree, they get by selling books that appeal to the lowest common denominator of the reading public - lowbrow trash.

  7. I'm late to this discussion because I can't wrap my head around the fact that books - much less bookstores, publishing houses, etc. may disappear in the near future. What will happen to libraries? What about all the people who won't be able to afford Kindles, Nooks and Ipads? How do you browse & find new authors and books on those things anyway?

    I can't imagine cooking using a machine instead of a cookbook (for the recipe) and the thought of reading to my future grandchildren from a machine and not a wonderfully illustrated book makes me so sad. This is NOT good news on so many fronts and like you said, I'm afraid all this will disappear before people realize it's happening now.

  8. You brought up some great points, anonymous. The disappearance of music stores is what spooks me so much about the situation that bookstores find themselves in today. That whole thing seemed to have happened and been over with before I really noticed what was happening...the same thing could so easily happen to bookstores that it is disturbing.