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Why are Indie Bookstores on the Decline in the UK But Having a Revival in the US?

2321919529_92c1cdb6bb_bWith the number of indie bookstores in the US growing every year, no one can argue that they are on the rise. B&N may be closing stores left, right, and center, but indies are doing great. That is why I found myself deeply confused when  I read this bit on The Bookseller yesterday:

Standing in this beautiful new Foyles store to launch ALLi’s Authors For Bookstores campaign, for a moment we can fool ourselves that reports of the decline of bricks-and-mortar bookshops are greatly exaggerated.

When I first read that I thought we were in for an article about Amazon killing bookstores (the likes of which is famous for), but then I realized that the quote came from someone speaking in the UK and referring to bookstores in that country.

While it is true that all the news reports say that the number of bookstores in the UK continue to decline, similar reports from the US say the opposite. In fact, as I noted in February of 2014, the number of indie bookstores in the US rose, while that figure declined in the UK. This trend reportedly continued in 2014, with the count declining from 987 to 939 in the UK.

In the US, however, the American Bookseller  Association announced in February that its membership rolls had grown in 2014:

In 2014, the American Booksellers Association welcomed 59 indie bookstores that opened in 25 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is the largest number of new stores joining ABA in a single year since the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

The new stores include nine branches or satellites of existing businesses and five stores selling primarily used books.

The ABA has noted that their membership has grown most years since 2005. That is rather curious, given that the UK Bookseller Association has said that the number of bookstores in the UK peaked in 2005 at 1,535.

Does anyone know why the two English speaking countries continue down such different paths?

I’m not familiar enough with British bookselling to be able to answer this question, but it has me puzzled. I would have thought that the higher population density in the UK would mean that any bookstore would have a greater concentration of customers.

Or is the higher density causing an increase in property values to the point that marginal retail operations like bookstores simply are not profitable?

What do you think?

P.S. And do you know what is even more fascinating? The Us has more indie bookstores while at the same time we also have a thriving online used book market. Yes, indie booksellers can sell online bought the bigger operations have no brick & mortar presence.

image by skunksKathleen Tyler Conklin

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Paul April 26, 2015 um 7:52 pm

I think it’s because of the charity stores selling books, and the decline in reading in the UK

anothername April 27, 2015 um 7:31 am

This. Walk down any high-street in the UK and you’ll see why. Sad how there are so many thrift / charity stores in the UK now. It seems small stores have great difficulty turning a profit.

Peter April 26, 2015 um 10:53 pm

At a guess, Waterstones isn’t as ineptly run as B&N (I believe Waterstones is actually expanding, rather than shutting down stores left and right). The biggest threat to independent bookstores continues to be giant chain bookstores, not online retailing.

DaveMich April 26, 2015 um 11:23 pm

In the US, used bookstores count as indies. That classic funky used bookstore with the unfinished pine shelves that cherry-picks boxes of books and resells them for a dollar or two has adjusted the mix and puts some new books on the shelves as well. They count as independents. They certainly count as bookstores, but they don’t feature a wall of hardcovers from traditional publishers.

fjtorres April 27, 2015 um 6:48 am

But only five of the 59 new ones in 2014 are used book stores.
The rest are selling new pbooks.

Fbone April 27, 2015 um 12:46 pm

Only 20 of the 45 ABA members listed in my state are actual walk-in bookstores selling adult fiction titles. Three have closed but one is opening.

Nate Hoffelder May 25, 2015 um 5:59 am

As well they should. Books are a durable good, and "used" books can often be as good of a quality as new. Plus they are easier to acquire and more numerous than "new" books.

Nate Hoffelder April 27, 2015 um 6:40 am

From Twitter:

That suit was filed in 1994. As we saw from the following 10 years, it did not stop B&N and Borders from killing off thousands of indie bookstores. Also, the suit against B&N and Borders failed, as I recall.

As I understand it, that act stops publishers from discriminating against specific retailers. They have to offer the same deals to all customers, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t offer better deals based on volume – deals which indies don’t qualify for because they’re not big enough.

And indies mostly don’t buy from publishers, anyway; they deal with distributors.

puzzled April 27, 2015 um 6:52 am

Books are a lot cheaper in the US.

Any book that is available in both the US and GB can be bought from the US and still be cheaper, even with the shipping.

We have this situation in Australia. It’s a lot cheaper to buy books on Amazon or Book Depository and have them shipped then it is to buy the book in Australia.

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