On Monday, 29 February, my local used book shop will be closing for the final time. C&W Used Books has been in the same Woodbridge location near Potomac Mills mall for 25 years, and it is closing and will be replaced by a beauty supply store (it can pay a higher rent).
"When my mom and I started the business we picked a commodity that we thought would be around forever: books," explained Robyn Horstkamp, owner and operator of C&W Used Books.
Horstkamp pins the blame on the rise of ebooks, but that's not the whole story:
While closing the store won't be easy, identifying what caused business to spiral is simple.
"eBooks gave us a big hurt. At first we hoped it was just a passing phase but as we saw it hook on and saw so many customers come in and say, 'I don't read books anymore,'" explained Horstkamp.
eBooks, digital media and E-Commerce show no signs of slowing down, especially among younger generations. But this lifelong book lover insists that generation is missing something.
"The touch, the feel, the smell. It's the physical aspect of turning a page and seeing your progress," Horstkamp, making an impassioned plea, said.
Horstkamp may blame ebooks for killing her store, but I stopped in on Saturday to ask a few questions (and take advantage of the closing sale), and I reached a different conclusion. eBooks are only partly to blame for this store shutting down; the other cause was that the owner did not adapt with the times.
In a era where there are massive online used book operations proving that used books are still a viable business, and there's a chain of used book shops to show that the B&M model can not only work but also be distilled into franchise, we need to consider what sets C&W apart from other bookstores.
In my opinion, that would be the fact that C&W does not do any type of online sales. They did not go where the customers are, and their business suffered as a result.
I've been saying since 2014 that any plan for the future of a bookstore has to include an online component:
And just to be clear, I do think small booksellers can survive if they adapt. IMO they need to one, offer competitive prices, and two, sell more stuff online. While many bookstores are already doing both, this point is frequently missed in debates about the future of bookselling (which seems to mainly focus on how to save the physical stores).
If, as recent research suggests, book buying is moving online then bookstores need to follow. Amazon might have the majority of online book sales in the US but that doesn't mean booksellers can't compete on either price or service.
That is certainly what I am seeing in other types of retail.
I recently got back into model trains, and after I had been buying locomotives and other stuff online for a couple months I realized that I was actually supporting an independently owned hobby shop - just not in my area. One of the hobby shops I buy from is based in Indiana, and I buy there because they offer prices and service within range of major retailers like Amazon.com. I know some might suggest that I support the nearest hobby shop, but it's a half hour drive away and charges full retail (which is sometimes twice what I pay online).
I know some will be disappointed that I am cheap and shirking my duty to my local store, but I feel that driving for an hour to pay full retail is simply too much to ask. I want to shop online, and sellers need to be there for me to find.
While it's easy to blame Amazon for taking business away from local bookstores, and even easier to blame ebooks, the fact of the matter is Amazon's marketplace also gives retailers the chance to reach a large pool of customers. Sure, they have to compete with other sellers, but thems the breaks.
There's no way for us to tell whether C&W would still be in operation if they had moved to selling books online, but with the added revenue they would have had a better shot at staying open.