The New York Times took notice of the recent bankruptcy of the bookstore chain Book World and used the opportunity to repeat the myth that Amazon is the fifth largest bookstore chain in the US (or the 4th now that Book World is gone).
That myth was invented by PW back in June, and it is just as false today as it was then.
This fall, at a moment when retailers traditionally look forward to reaping holiday profits, the owner of the fourth-largest bookstore chain in the country surrendered to the forces of e-commerce.
Book World, founded in 1976, sold hardcovers, paperbacks and sometimes tobacco in malls, downtowns and vacation areas across the Upper Midwest. It had endured recessions, the expansion of superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then the rise of Amazon. But the 45-store chain could not survive the shifting nature of shopping itself, and so announced its liquidation.
“Sales in our mall stores are down this year from 30 to 60 percent,” said Bill Streur, Book World’s owner. “The internet is killing retail. Bookstores are just the first to go.”
As e-commerce becomes more deeply embedded in the fabric of daily life, including for the first time in rural areas, bookstores are undergoing a final shakeout. Family Christian Stores, which had 240 stores that sold books and other religious merchandise, closed this year, not long after Hastings Entertainment, a retailer of books, music and video games with 123 stores, declared bankruptcy and then shut down.
“Books aren’t going away, but bookstores are,” said Matthew Duket, a Book World sales associate waiting for customers in the West Bend, Wis., store.
Here is one way to measure the upheaval in bookselling: Replacing Book World as the fourth-largest chain, Publishers Weekly says, will be a company that had no physical presence a few years ago. That would be Amazon, which having conquered the virtual world has opened or announced 15 bookshops, including at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan.
There are a bunch of problems with this story. The first is that according to Amazon’s count, it has 16 stores, not 15.
The other problem is that there are several chains with more bookstores than Amazon.
As I reported back in June, Deseret Books has 33 stores, Lifeways has a chain of 174 stores, and Hudson Booksellers has some dozens of bookstores in airports (as well as hundreds of newsstands). And there’s also Seagull Books and Tape, which has 25 stores.
That means Amazon is not the fourth largest bookstore chain after B&N, Books-a-Million, and Halfprice Books; it is the eighth (or possibly even the tenth largest if you count Follett and B&N Edu, which operate college bookstores).
Everyone is so eager to proclaim the clickbait about Amazon that they overlook a few inconvenient facts like the actual state of the bookstore industry.
Furthermore, it is also the least interesting detail about the industry. Book sales have largely moved online, and frankly the remaining chains do not sell a lot of books. (Fun fact: the US Census Bureau stats on bookstore sales include all merchandise sales, not just books, and have dropped by a third in the past decade.)
At this point obsessing over the exact number of chain bookstore locationss is like obsessing over the number of livery stables left in the US. It is pointless in that neither chain bookstores nor stables have a huge impact on their respective industries.
Me, I am more interested in the businesses that are moving into the cultural niche that the chain bookstores vacated long ago.
Brick-and-mortar bookselling is for all intents and purposes dead; chain bookstores killed off local bookstores by being better at selling books, and were in turn killed by Amazon.
A bookstore cannot survive on retail alone, which is why many booksellers are holding off the inevitable by finding new reasons to get people in the door. They’re community spaces, or hybrid bars or coffee shops, or they have some other draw.
This is not a new trend, obviously; some bookstores had worked out this idea decades ago, and even the media noticed four or five years ago.