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On Bookstores Going the Way of Video Stores

4080138725_cf1e2e07af_bElectric Literature has joined the "it’s just a flesh wound" crowd of bookstore boosters last week.

Ex-video store clerk Jeremy Hawkins wrote a post last week in which he recounts the demise of video stores and argue that bookstores would not be going down the same path because:

But then there are all those zeitgeist-frustrating facts, widely reported, like that membership in the American Booksellers Association, a trade organization of independent booksellers, has gone up in each of the last five years. Which means that more bookstores are opening than closing. Period.

And take these circumstantial examples: Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC (where I now work) and Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. Both stores opened in 2009, when the U.S. economy in general, and the bookstore industry in particular, were swirling in the toilet. Both Flyleaf and Greenlight are now profitable. Both are growing. Both have established themselves as cultural fixtures in their respective communities.

Both stores are here to stay.

And there’s this: A recent study showed that current college students (we’re talking literal millennials here) actually prefer reading print books over eBooks, claiming it helps them better retain knowledge.

I freely admit to being a bookstore booster myself. Even though I would never shop in one (I’m too frugal), I’ve championed the resurgence of indies on several occasions.

I’d like to see bookstores thrive, but I’m not so sure that they won’t go the way of the video store.

Borders has already gone the way of Blockbuster, and B&N is going the way of Hollywood Video. B&N may be closing only 10 to 20 stores a year but they have yet to say when they’re opening new ones. A slow dissipation may be better than a sudden expiration, but only just. (And don’t forget, B&N has shifted so much of their floor space to non-book items that they hardly count as bookstores any more.)

What’s more, Hawkins may cite the ABA membership numbers as proof that bookstores are doing fine but I would remind you that the related stats for the UK are trending in the other direction. Indie bookstores are closing in the UK, not opening.

The UK Bookseller Association has reported declining membership for each of the past three years. Their count has dropped to 939 stores, down from 1,028 stores in February 2013.

As the Literary Ames book blog points out, there are a lot of differences between the book markets of the US and the UK, but there are also several similarities. Both countries have frugal consumers, increased competition from deep discounters (charity shops in the UK vs online sellers in the US), and a general move to buying stuff online (a category where the UK may actually lead the US).

Given the trend in the UK and the similarities between the countries, I think Hawkins is wrong at least in part. Indies aren’t thriving in the US solely on their own merits; they’re also benefiting from the decline of the major chains.

The death of Borders killed 405 bookstores in less than 6 months. That is huge vacuum for indies to fill, and the slow decline of Barnes & Noble is creating more opportunities for indies.

The number of indie bookstores is rising, yes, but it’s not growing fast enough to replace the revenue generated by the big box bookstores. Heck, the indies haven’t even managed to match the number of big box bookstores that have closed in the US in the past 5 years.

Folks, as much as I would like to agree with Hawkins and pretend that bookstores are doing fine, when taken as a whole they’re really not. Could bookstores go the way of video stores?

In all honesty, the current trends suggest they are already headed in that direction.

found via ThePassiveVoice

images by Joelk75markhillary

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jjj June 22, 2015 um 4:19 pm

More like vinyl stores but significantly better, at least for a while. Just like vinyl, paper books have something to offer to the user that ebooks can’t match. When screens or more likely glasses and contacts become good enough, then paper books will be relegated to being a niche like vinyl but a somewhat slow.
Paper books will be much harder to displace not only because of the new tech not being quite great but also because the format has been around for a very long time and the audience covers all age groups better than music or video did.
Price shouldn’t be ignored either , ebooks are cheaper to produce and the vast majority of the world doesn’t have money to waste so cheaper will win. For now less than half of the global population has a smartphone , access to affordable data is problematic and online payments are rather limited but all that is slowly changing.

Nate Hoffelder June 22, 2015 um 4:50 pm

That is a better analogy, yes. I hadn’t considered it but bookstores are more like record stores than video stores. Of course, record stores died even faster so that doesn’t help any.

But I wouldn’t want to make an analogy between paper books and vinyl; that’s too depressing. It’s also imperfect. Sound could be digitized from a record and serve as an absolutely effective replacement for that record. Books can be digitized but there are a number of use cases where ebooks can’t replace paper.

Simon June 22, 2015 um 10:45 pm

Exactly, never underestimate cheaper, easier or "good-enough". (Which is why mp3 won, even though the sound quality was far worse than vinyl or CD).

This was just in the news today 90 million people in Nigeria browse the web on mobile:

The audience for digital goods is potentially so vast, it makes the head spin.

Daniel Vian June 22, 2015 um 6:12 pm

So what’s the time scale? Are we talking 10 years, 50 years, 100 years, a thousand years, ten thousand years? In a thousand years we cannot even imagine the technology that will b extant. A hundred years i s almost as much in a fog. There will likely still be bookstores in 10 years. But in 50 year? Maybe for collectors. Most people in this world are more interest in the content of books rather in what they look like. Especially developing societies. If content is king, I would rather have 3000 books stored in a device/gadget than taking up physical space that keeps getting more and more expensive. Consider that now we can send 3000 books to someone in Africa for the price of a cappuccino in Starbucks. Paper books? Wonderful until something better came along to carry and transmit the words/content to us.

Eric Riback June 22, 2015 um 7:12 pm

A relatively small number (i.e. ~1500 in US compared to 5000+ in the 80s) of well-run independent bookstores will continue in business and maybe even flourish. Nearly all sell more than books, so while books are the central and unifying theme, they sell gifts, greeting cards and stationery, music, coffee, booze, decor etc, and are in different ways community centers, event spaces and so on. Borders had a long history of bad management decisions (one example: letting amazon run their e-comm store; another: hiring executives from the supermarket industry) that made them particularly vulnerable.

Nate Hoffelder June 22, 2015 um 7:27 pm

You bring up a very good point. Bookstores have already gone through a culling; they’re more or less in the late stages of the decline that record stores went through.

Will bookstores hold at this point, or continue to dwindle? That is up in the air.

Eric Riback June 22, 2015 um 7:12 pm

By the way, I see B&N is selling vinyl!

anothername June 23, 2015 um 7:05 am

The funny thing is, I’ve gone back to paper. Easier on the eye. But I buy used.

Jon Jermey June 23, 2015 um 5:03 pm

It’s taken about thirty years for the CD stores in Sydney to die. Three or four are still there, including one second-hand CD shop. And one large electronic goods chain also stocks CDs. But the overall trend is clear. The smaller suburban shops that went first, driving their remaining customers into the city. The city shops actually grew for a while, until their customer numbers peaked, and then either closed or moved into lower-rent areas. Those that remain will probably last out the current generation, but no more. It’s a slow but inexorable process of attrition — the death of a thousand cuts.

David Gaughran June 24, 2015 um 8:26 am

Is a rise in ABA membership numbers sufficient proof that (a) the sector is in rude health or even (b) that the number of stores is actually increasing?

Is there another metric other than that from the ABA? (Maybe the US Census Bureau or something?) I ask because it’s theoretically possible that the number of stores is actually decreasing but the number of ABA members increasing – i.e. indie stores facing tough conditions/closures might see more value in joining the ABA now and agitating for some kind of change.

BTW I also read that Literary Ames post and it was very good. One thing he didn’t mention: AFAIK in the US it’s (potentially) illegal to have sweetheart deals – i.e. publishers giving Barnes & Noble or the box stores a better deal than an indie bookstore. There was a big case brought by the ABA in the late 90s I think which was (IIRC) ultimately settled with a payment to the ABA.

The respective law under question doesn’t exist in the UK, and (again, not sure on all this, it’s a while since I researched it) thus permits, for example, PRH to give better terms to Tesco than an indie store. Indies in the UK are always complaining that the supermarkets can sell the latest Harry Potter for steep discounts because they get the books cheaper from the publisher.

My memory could be faulty on the latter though…

David Gaughran June 24, 2015 um 8:28 am

Oops. Should be "she" not "he" – my bad.

DavidW June 24, 2015 um 11:32 am

Gift shop bookstore hybrids are NOT here to stay. I was not surprised when the store in my town put itself up for sale. Who in their right mind would go in there to look at an exceedingly limited selection of overpriced hardcovers and become a repeat customer!? And this all for the sake of making most of their store a gift shop. It’s just stupid.

Used bookstores that have both a storefront and an online presence are here to stay. They can undercut the prices of ebooks and still turn a profit. They can offer first and second print editions for collectors. They serve a niche market that supplements instead of competes with Amazon.

Once the big chains have further declined, the indie bookstores will see another big decline. This is just the eye of the storm for them. BN, Borders, BAM have been taking the most damage, but eventually they will be marginalized enough that indie bookstores will be threatened once more.

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