Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Death of the Independent Bookstore

For a few years we had a real treasure in our neighborhood: a locally-owned bookshop. It was in a shopping plaza nestled between a coffee shop and a bike store. Both those businesses failed but the book store persisted. And then it expanded: from a fairly mainstream setup, like a smaller-scale Barnes & Noble, it went niche and grew. They acquired another location nearby — though not, unfortunately, adjacent — and opted to brand themselves as a children's bookshop. One location stocked mostly baby through middle-grade books, with a few shelves of nonfiction; the other concentrated on YA books and speculative fiction, although it had a healthy stock of general fiction as well. Around Christmas, when I went in to do my usual holiday shopping, I saw they were clearing a space for a coffee bar. A few months later I went in on a Friday night and a local band was playing: this was, they told me, a regular Friday event now. The YA store had become (appropriately) a hangout for teens. Only ... very few teens were actually in the store. Nobody was really in the store.
Then, last week, I saw the news on their Facebook page: "With heavy hearts we are facing the last days of our wonderful bookstore adventure. We will be closing our doors this summer." I can't say I was entirely shocked, as too frequently I was the only shopper there, but I was very disappointed. This bookstore added to the community what independent bookstores always add: a place to meet other book nerds, a warm and intellectual richness to the plaza, a shopping space that was quiet and peaceful, and a place to go and get book recommendations from real people. Knowledgable people. I had come to know the men and women who worked at our bookshop, and we'd fall into long geeky conversations about our favorite books, often excitedly running to the shelves to pull out some treasure, pressing into each other hands and gushing, "You have got to read this!" The kind of recommendations I got from these guys was totally different than what Amazon's big-data bots would tell me to buy. Just yesterday, the Bookshop Guy handed me this book to read — a quirky little delight, he said, that I'd never have heard of otherwise.

So what's killing these bookstores? I suspect one problem in this case was just a matter of sinking too much money into the store too quickly, expanding beyond what it was able to sustain. It was doing OK when it was just the one store. But in general, one cause is obvious: print books are giving way to ebooks. For a quality rant on this topic, you can read Seth Godin's grumpy-old-man screed here. Although I do find it a bit odd for a young technophile to be this curmudgeonly about ebooks, he has plenty of company. Most people, I have found, feel and think this way about books these days ... even as they participate in the new, "worse" paradigm.

Another cause, which encompasses the former, is capitalism. As much as I favor Adam Smith over Karl Marx, it's not hard to see various downsides of laissez-faire these days. Market forces are rarely going to favor tiny-local over giant-corporate, so any shop that is local and independently owned is inherently fragile. You can find lots of blogs and articles urging consumers to buy local, to support independent alternatives, to keep City X "weird," and so forth. But exhortations are unlikely to overcome the allure of cheap goods ... especially when said goods can be delivered right to your door. (Or to your e-reader.) I can't see a way out of this, myself: it seems we're on an irrevocable course to the disappearance of all things small and local and to the Walmartization of everything.

Hmm ... now I'm the one being curmudgeonly.

But wait! Rescuing me from this doom and gloom is a wisp of promise. As I began writing this piece, I googled "death of independent bookstore," because of course. Curiously, however, most of the hits I got were about the resurgence of independent bookstores. Apparently, in spite of the death of my neighborhood shop, many indie bookstores are doing all right. The key seems to be "small and niche." Of course, our store tried that tactic and it didn't work, but they may have been working against a few other obstacles, too. Expanding too quickly, as I noted earlier, and locating themselves in a shopping plaza without much foot traffic. When I've gone to successful indie bookshops in other cities, such as this one and this one, I've noticed that they're located in pedestrian-heavy areas, especially in vibrant downtowns. Foot traffic and local-indie go together. People who are out shopping as an event, like tourists, or girlfriends having a shop + coffee afternoon, are the kind of people who end up patronizing the cute little bookshop. It's not the sort of destination people build into their schedule, like trips to the grocery store.

For local indie bookstores to survive and thrive, they (and we who love them) have to think of what they offer that Barnes & Noble does not, that Amazon does not. What magical ingredients could we think of to help this happen? Combining bookshop with coffee shop? Book shop with ... wine bar? (Now that would draw me in.) Cookbookery shop with cookware and specialty foods store?

What do you think could keep these community assets alive ... or do you (like Farhad Manjoo) think it's time for these "cultish, moldering institutions" to give up the ghost, already?

Parnassus Books: author Ann Patchett's own indie bookshop


  1. When I consider the underlying fragility of all electronically stored media --the plug can be pulled at anytime-- it is obvious, the literature of the 21st century is being written in disappearing ink.

    1. I actually think digital copies are more robust than physical. Mostly because there are more of them. You can easily duplicate a thousand copies of Proust's "Swann's Way" and each of them is a backup for a thousand instant copies of same. Burn a physical library, and it's all gone forever. The most fragile of inks is ink.

  2. This is an interesting post. I'm glad I found your blog--I'm now your newest follower. I get tears whenever I see a small business, bookstore or others, close down. I have a Kindle, but I still love my paper and ink books, too, and I haven't quit buying them.

    1. I agree that it's a bit of a false dichotomy to think you have to pick one or the other. At this moment I am reading a hardcover novel from the library, but I'm also listening to a book I only own as a (digital) audiobook. Although I'm very comfortable with digital media, and not especially nostalgic about paper, Kindle is probably how I consume only about 1/3 of my books. I try (tried) to buy as many books as I can (could) afford at our indie bookstore, just to support it. :(

      Thanks for stopping by, Debi! Glad to have you here.

  3. As a writer, this is so scary and sad. Makes it even more difficult to continue pushing ourselves, doesn't it? I mean I know that there are still e-books and that there will always be some kind of literature, but I don't think e-books give as much profit to writers as hardcovers, right?

    1. I wouldn't have thought so, Lorena, but I did a quick Google and it looks like you're right.

      "In the sample case of a new release frontlist title, the ebook edition is 39 percent more profitable, returning an additional $2.20 in profit to the publisher over the hardcover. Authors and agents will immediately note that much of the additional profit exists because the royalty allocation once earned out is $1.58 lower on the ebook than for the hardcover. On a hardcover, the author earns 30 percent of the publisher’s gross revenue, and 42.5 percent of the total margin (what the author and publisher together earn). For now, on the ebook, the author earns 25 percent."

      Interesting ... and yeah, scary and sad. :(

  4. "Cookbookery shop with cookware and specialty foods store?"

    When I lived in Colorado there was this wonderful little cooking shop I loved to go into. Of course, everything was twice as much as you could buy it at, say, Target. They did have this lovely nook area with an array of cookbooks, but not many people frequented that section of the store. But, it was probably the best place to put a cookbook selection. I don't mind the idea of certain books selling in certain niche-style shops.

    However, it does make me sad that an art form such as books is slowly dwindling away. It makes me think of when there was this strange craze with digital artwork on the walls or watching a digital slideshow in a picture frame. There's just this inauthentic feel to it. Seeing a real Picasso or Degas, or holding a photo album filled with pictures feels so much more real and connectable. Same goes for books with me. There's just seems to be the culture of disconnect we're all becoming so comfortable with.


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