In which we discuss bookstores

Bookstores are closing up shop.

First, it was the giant retail chains who squeezed out the local independent book sellers. We pulled out our tissues as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan showed us how the evil, giant megastores with their unlimited funds and fancy espresso bars lured unsuspecting customers away from the caring, local bookseller who was eventually forced to close thier doors.

But was it the fancy espresso bar that lured us away from our friendly local bookstore? I suspect not.

It was the selection.

Simply put, the mega bookstores had space. Thousands and thousands of additional square feet which were used to house thousands and thousands of more books for sale. Suddenly, bibliophiles weren't limited to just a selection of local cookbooks and the latest Grisham novel. We expanded our genre horizons as we browsed for hour after hour in those giant book havens and walked out the door with books our local independent booksellers could never have stocked.

But then the virtual bookstores started putting the squeeze on the brick and mortar stores. The Amazon warehouse in Seattle alone is the size of thirteen football fields. Online, millions of books are literally at our fingertips.

an Amazon warehouse

No driving to our local bookstore, placing an order, waiting two weeks and then making a return trip to pick up the book. Simply hit the checkout key on our computer and bam ... our friendly UPS driver is lovingly placing the book in our hands within two days.

Don't want to wait the two days for delivery? Get a Kindle. Download just about any book you can think of instantly to your reader and in five minutes you can be happily ensconsed in your favorite La-Z-Boy reading Proust (and don't get me started on Proust. I've read it, I've studied it, and I still think it's crap).

This is a world of instant gratification. We've come to expect it. We demand it. Want to know what's going on in the Middle East? CNN broadcasts 24 hours a day. Heard a song you like on the radio? Download it instantly on iTunes. Miss your favorite television show? Stream it onto your computer.

Why should our books be any different? When we want a book, we want it now. Not two weeks from now. And the price we pay for this is the disentigration of our friendly community booknook.

Instead of blaming big business, perhaps we should take a look at ourselves first.

Personally, I think the whole problem started with TV dinners.

I'm just sayin'.


  1. I agree one hundred percent. It's our instant gratification society. And the discounts.

  2. You've got a good point about the discounts. Heck, these poor local sellers can't afford the discounts that volume sellers can. And we're all feeling the pinch, right?

  3. Call me eccentric, but I blame the bookstores. The world is changing, no use wishing it was otherwise and yelling at the consumer for being disloyal. Bookstores need a new business model or they will be extinct. I'm fine with that.

  4. I also think it has to do with the fact the indie booksellers have gotten behind the curve on the tech side of the issue. Not only do relatively few indie bookstores have good websites, they have been slow to adopt the new social media/social networking part of Web 2.0.

    I recently wrote a guest blog post about the book "What Would Google Do."- which is an interesting look at how the business world operates or should operate in the internet age- yet most business haven't caught onto this yet.

    I am a huge proponent of bookstores operating on the cutting edge of the social networking movement on the internet as a way to help save their businesses. Bookstores are about community. Build the community and respond to your customers. Instant gratification and massive selection (and discounts) are certainly contributors to the problem, but are we doing enough with the tools available to us?

  5. Ann and Drew - you both have very valid points. I agree in the sense that as a business, you have to change with the times or become extinct and that's business.

    I just got to thinking today when I ran down to my local bookstore with 12 books on my list to buy. Now I didn't expect them to have all of them, but a good half of them were mainstream novels that they should have carried (this is a large Borders Bookstore). They had ZERO.

    I was ticked, to be honest. The manager offered to order the books for me (they'd be in in 2 weeks), but I just came home and ordered them from Amazon.

    Then I got to wondering: why did I need those books instantly? It's not as if I'm going to read them this week. I'll be lucky if I get around to them in the next six months. So why on earth did I feel the need to have them right now?

    And that part was my bad.

  6. Oh I wasn't yelling at the customers or saying bookstores couldn't be doing more. But seriously, I don't know how many times people have told me that they can get the book straight away through Amazon and that it's cheaper and that's what they care about when we have the "where do you buy your books" talk.

  7. Probably a half and half proposition. But when I think about all the other areas of my life that instant gratification hasn't exactly been a positive influence, I can't help but wonder if my book buying habits fall in that category, too.

  8. If that's all they want from their bookstore (fast & cheap) then why should they go somewhere that is slow and (relatively) expensive?

    Since for me there is no benefit to the bricks & mortar store and lots of disadvantages I shop online and I don't feel guilty about it. When it comes to indies or bricks & mortar chains, it's not the fact that they are slow or expensive, but rather that it's like pulling teeth to get anything on or off the shelves unless you can find it yourself -- after venturing out in -30C weather on transit. That's just like shopping online but with more aggravation.

    The only people who should feel guilty about buying online are those who mourn the demise of their local bookstore yet are unwilling to support it.

  9. First of all.. I loove you've got mail. I like your post.. yep we want it now. There is nothing like a true book store.. but then there is nothing like a Costco/Walmart/slash on line price when we need a bargin and an addition to our shelves... Yep.. it started with TV dinners....

  10. Touche, Ann. And I think I might fall into that category. As much as I love the concept of my local book-nook, I bitched and moaned today about the lack of availability and turned around and bought from Amazon. It's okay to buy from Amazon, but I can't bitch about the demise of my bookstore if I do that.

    Cake and eating it, too and all that, I suppose.

  11. Well, it is certainly true that the big stores would not be in business if someone weren't shopping there. And they do give discounts. But I have no loyalty to them. I rarely purchase anything at my local Borders and NEVER without a 30 or 40% off discount coupon. My husband hates it. (He's not allowed to buy stuff, either). I have a notebook with me and I write down price & title of anything that catches my eye. It is almost alway available online for less, even if you have a coupon. So you have to wait a bit for it. It's not like we don't have anything else to read! ;)

    Patience is a virtue, right?

    Better yet, I go to local library booksales or used book stores. I find stuff I didn't even know I wanted for a fraction of the price of a new book.

    (The word you are looking for is THRIFTY...not cheap!) :)


  12. Toni - and if we really wanted to join in today's society, we'd sue Swanson. ha.

  13. We've become a microwave society. If it can't be had in one minute or less, then we don't want it, or we'll go somewhere else to get it.

    But, what I'm saying is- bookstores should be in stock on mainstream stuff, best-sellers, etc. But, we also MUST engage our customers, in store and online, and find out what direction their tastes are going. Simply stocking up with 20,000 titles doesn't ensure that we will have what they want, i.e., the Borders experience. But, if our customers come to expect that we have books, and a deep selection of them, in a specific category, and we know this because we engage them, we are more likely to have what they want. When we don't have it in store, are we giving them a quick option to get it, that 1) satisfies their need for instant gratification, and 2)keeps their business with us? There's nothing wrong with working with other websites to fulfill needs if you can at least get a percentage of the sale, especially if we have no ecommerce on our websites at all.

  14. Carey - I am relatively new to the library sale thing. One thing I noticed when I went to one recently was how ticked I was at seeing books that I had recently paid full retail price for being offered at 50-cents.

    Suffice it to say that I'm a convert. :P

  15. Wow, you have certainly hit on a lively discussion topic, Michele!

    I agree with Ann, part of the problem is that most of the employees at these big stores don't have a clue. They don't know what they have or where it is shelved. If they had employees who actually read books regularly, things might be different.

  16. Drew - love hearing your thoughts on this, primarily because my retirement dream is to open a bookstore in our sleepy little town here. I'd be curious to hear what you think about the viability of machines like Espresso Book Machine for independent book sellers.

  17. There's an even bigger picture than comparing a local bricks and mortar bookstore with Amazon. As we lose independent bookstores, we are losing a vital part of our community. A good bookstore can also be what sociologists call a "third place." It's where local writer's can give talks and host book signings. It's where local poets gather. It's where children dress up for Harry Potter book release parties. There are simply things that cannot be replicated through use of the internet.

    Sure, bookstores face huge challenges, but so do all small retailers now. Amazon first lured consumers to its system of online shopping and purchasing with heavily discounted books. It's taken awhile but a sizable percentage of the population is now comfortable with online commerce. And, now, Amazon is selling much more than books.

    Amazon is destroying local economies. In most states, Amazon does not collect taxes, although this is slowly starting to change.

    The other day I was checking out a cooking blog and there was an ad for cooking gadgets from Amazon. Will this eventually put my neighbor's beautiful Main Street shop out of business? What about all the items they've donated to local charities over the years...too bad.

    I just think this is a sad trend but I don't know that it can be stopped.

  18. Carey - do you think you find the employee problem more in stores such as BN/Borders or small independently run bookstores?

  19. Michele -

    That has happened to me so many times! I can't stand seeing something I paid a bundle for sitting in front of me for $1. So now I only buy something at full price (or coupon discounted price)if I absolutely cannot live without it and am going to read it IMMEDIATELY. Considerably narrows the field, that's for sure.

  20. I agree with Drew. I think bookstores need to learn to be competitive. One of the reasons I didn't used to go to my local bookstore is because at Borders, I can look up what I want on the computer. I think that things have progressed fairly quickly, and unless a bookstore was quick on the draw (Powell's), they're scrambling to play catch up now.

  21. Michele:
    My parents had a rule about politics: If you're eligible to vote and don't, then you have no right to complain about the result.

    I tend to apply that rule to other things as well ... like bookstores. :-)

    Chapters used to do something similar to what you are suggesting. They had their own ecommerce site (still do) and would order it for you right there for same price online without charging you shipping and you just had to come back in two days or so and pick it up. I took advantage of that all the time and preferred it over amazon for ages. Then they started just telling you to go order it online from their site yourself. Biiiiiiig mistake. They weren't competitive with amazon at the time.

    All those things you list as advantages about bookstores? Those are advantages to a very small number of book buyers. If that segment can't support the bookstore, then I don't think other book buyers should feel compelled to subsidize it.

    Shelf Awareness had a story about an indie store that went online only and is still doing author signings and such in conjunction with other local businesses (not necessarily bookstores). We don't need bookstores for author signings and book parties, that's just where they've been held traditionally. Things will evolve if we let them (and even if we don't, they will still evolve).

  22. I definately think the problem is far more prevalent at the big stores. Indy sellers almost always have employees who know something about books and can answer basic questions. Even used book stores do far better in this area than the chains.

  23. Cali - good point. Sort of like the Starbucks issue and Walmart issue (don't get me started on Walmart). I wish our small town did have a gathering place like what you describe. But we don't. Never really have when it comes to bookstores. I think for some people, Amazon is a Godsend. I, for one, would love to see a local independent bookstore that flourished in the community and was cutting edge with technology, availability, and service as well.

    Very few can fill that order, though.

  24. I think POD is part of that cutting edge. As the prices fall for Espresso, like they do for any technology that is adopted by more and more people (or businesses), more bookstores should take advantage of it. I think a change is coming in the publishing industry and POD is part of it.

    I also think that bookstores have to quit being so scared of ebooks. In my mind ebooks won't replace printed books in the foreseeable future- they will coexist. But, bookstores, rather than shunning them should have a plan. Start selling ebook readers. Get Sony's ereader in the store. Put pressure on Amazon to let us sell Kindles for them. Then we can send our customers through our websites and gain revenues off those sales.

    Combine traditional print, ebooks, POD into an indie bookstore, I think you have a great store.

    Having said that, let me quote Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?" We are no longer a world of mass markets, but a "market of mass niches." Define what you are really good at (in bookstores- mystery, children's, cookbooks?) and link yourself to that community. Offer them value beyond just having the books. Engage them.

    Imagine a cookbook store that had POD, ebooks, new and used, and engaged the cooking community out on the web through social media, gave suggestions, shared recipes, etc.

  25. Trish - you bring up a great example: Powell's. What a shining example. There's another independent book store down in Houston that has done wonders with online shopping. They are known for their plethora of author appearances and they always have extra signed copies for sale online...they specialize in that and I avail myself of that service an awful lot.

  26. Drew--that's a great quote about market of mass niches.
    I should probably read that book so I can better articulate what I've been trying to say lately on that topic.

    Btw, I think bookstores and blogs should hook up and help each other. :)

  27. I think I should take a look at the Jarvis book...the subject fascinates me.

    Amy - I'd be curious to hear your ideas about bookstores and blogs.

  28. Amy, I agree about bookstore and blogs helping each other. First, I'd say that every bookstore out there better have a blog and find their own voice to communicate with their customers.

    Next, finding ways that fans of a specific bookstore could blog about books and tie to that bookstore would be fantastic.

    It all comes back to the community thing. Your community may be made of people in your town and all around the country, but, because they like what you do in your bookstore and with social media and what other bloggers do for you, you tie people together.

  29. Ann,

    Your use of the word "subsidize" is telling. Our society is evolving into a me first, what's in it for me culture and this is reflected in what's happening to our local economies and in our communities at large. Why should I vote for school bonds, I don't have children in school? Why should I vote in favor of a library bond, minimal hours are ok with me and I don't utilize storytime and the book mobile.

    Yes, bookstores like any other entities will continue to evolve, there's no question about that. However, I'm concerned about our culture's "evolution" away from holding a value of the greater good.

  30. Though...

    I love bookstores and more than them I have been in love with the online reading clubs...

    I agree with you...human nature...

  31. Amen. What we lost when the local bookstores closed are (1) personal service, (2) hand-selling of great books that weren't being promoted by the publisher, (3) knowledgeable store employees, and (4) diversity.

    The big stores, sell to middle America (or middle England or middle Romania), and because they are major retail outlets, publishers are hesitant to take on books that the average person won't read. In the old days, more intellectual books and literary fiction were sold one book at a time in small stores all over the world.

    Just my thoughts, I could be wrong. Discounts be damned, I try to support the independent bookseller whenever I have a chance.

    Now I'll read what the rest of you have said.

  32. I do try to support our local bookstore. The only time I've seen it with a crowd was when Nicholas Sparks was there. It really needs a renovation, but if business is poor, I'm sure they can't afford it.

  33. Michele -

    First of all, thank you for your very encouraging comments on my blog. I have decided to chalk this up to an "educational" experience and move on. I have greatly enjoyed the community support I have received over this issue, however, and that is one of the prime reasons I started a blog -- to become a part of a social community that shares my same personal interests. I do not always expect us to agree, but I do think that our disagreements can be worded in a more tactful way :)

    Having said that, I just read all the comments to this post (I read the post yesterday but could not comment as it hit too close to home). WOW -- there are some GREAT, thought-provoking comments here and it is certainly an issue that is near and dear to a lot of book lovers out there.

    I am not nearly as knowledgeable nor eloquent as some of those who have commented, but I would like to say that I searched out the blogging community because what I needed - wanted - in my own literary world here in the midwest was sorely lacking. I have never been a part of a book club (and being an English teacher, you would think that a bit odd) - so last summer I went in search of local book clubs that I might be able to join. I went to the big book chains, the independent book store and the library. I even searched Craig's List to NO avail (the library had the grand total of 2 to choose from, but neither timeframe worked for me). So.....I surfed online. I found BN online book clubs, Shelfari, and GoodReads. All of these were good, but at least for me, they lacked the intimate social aspect. Then, somehow, I found a book blog (I think Becky's Book Reviews was the first). I instantly felt connected to this total stranger through her writing of book commentary. I was hooked. I have since found many, many wonderful bloggers out there who not only share my love of books, but they are also willing to share a bit of my life.

    I think our depressed economy is going to force a lot of changes - and the book/publishing industry is not immune. I do think, however, that change is not always bad. I think that by revamping the "old" bookstore to a new way of commerce AND community will eventually create a win/win situation, at least in some cases. I fear there may be some of the "survival of the fittest" to wade through before that time, however.

  34. Interesting topic and comments. I'm not sure how I feel since Indie bookstores around here died with the local economic upheaval we had a few years ago. They never made it back. I think to open an Indie store you have to do it for love. The big stores can afford the deep discounts (of course I love that).

    Beth's thoughts on books that aren't big sellers is interesting. I wonder what we are missing out on. There have been times I've had to go to the library or used book store because a rare book I wanted was crazy expensive on Amazon or I just couldn't find it because it was out of print.

  35. Molly got me thinking and I just posted a related comment on her blog.

    And one thing I said there was, despite my strong feelings about independent booksellers, I really rarely have an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is: (1) There is no independent bookstore where I live and (2) the present economy makes it difficult to spend extra money just to support my ideals.

  36. Interesting Post.

    I'll admit I enjoy the instant gratification of getting my books in 2 days from Amazon.

    However we have a great used bookstore and he is what Cali mentioned a 'third place' He primarily sells used books and has about 5% new. new. He has a website, has writers groups, readings, new author book signings. I've had more luck finding books there than B&N or Borders. He supports authors such as Brenda Novak and Allison Brennan. He had Brenda in for book signings. He provides more customer service and knowledge than you will get at the big box store. Because of that, I generally buy most of my books from him.

    He had a brand new author in for a book signing the other day. I happened to be in the shop, so bought the book to support the author.

    I do buy from Borders or Barnes and Noble. But only after I've gone online to their sites to make sure the book will be in stock. I can't tell you how dismayed I was when Children of Huron by Tolkien came out and I went into Borders to find they didn't have it. (my bad-I failed to check online thinking they would have it) Their response - We didn't think it was going to be that popular.

    Brad's store is thriving because he is working to make it thrive and not just sitting back waiting for something to happen. Being a small business owner myself, I have seen so many stores come and go in our complex. Why, because they opened and sat back and waited for someone to show up. They didn't do their homework, nor did they think beyond 'oh - i want to open a business.' But that is a story for another day.

    Thought provoking post - thank you.


  37. I am lucky enough to have a Borders and a Barnes & Noble within 10 minutes of my house. And the people who work there are both knowledgable and friendly. One of the things I love about the brick and mortar stores is finding that book that you know nothing about, which catches the corner of your eye with a cool cover, or that you find while just browsing the authors around the one you are looking for. I rarely find them while shopping online sites because I don't want to take the time to browse on the computer. I'm a much more "hands-on" shopper. That being said, when I'm strapped for time and know exactly what I'm looking for, I do shop Amazon or for great deals. Or when I get gift certificates, like I did at Christmas:)

  38. In regards to browsing...and feel free to call me naive...but I think book blogging has really made it possible to have a good idea of what's out there. I read so many book blogs on a wide variety of topics, that I rarely go to a bookstore and see books that I've no concept of (particularly among new releases)

    I guess I really am the sort of person who gets most of my information online. ;)

  39. Cali,

    There is a world of difference between supporting social services (icluding libraries, minimum wage, etc.) which are part of municipal, provincial (in my case, since I am not in the US), and federal government mandates, and supporting private businesses.

    Bookstores are private businesses and it is disingenuous to put them in the same category as public libraries which are (at least in my country) government services. If anyone tries to take the local library away then I'll be at the front of the line to protest it. In fact, I do "subsidize" other users of the library because I pay a yearly fee while those in lesser economic circumstances pay no fees. I have no problem with that. Bookstores, as private businesses, are not in the same category.

    In my community it is the library that does the bookmobile and book clubs, not private bookstores.

    Beth F:
    If you lost those things when your local bookstore closed than you were far luckier to have them in the first place than most people with local bookstores. I've lived in more than 10 communities in my lifetime and have never run across a bookstore that offered those things and that was years before it could be blamed on chain stores or online buying.

    In fact, I suspect that part of the stampede to online buying comes from the customers of the many stores that did not embody the qualities so often associated with bookstores but so rarely found in practice. Booksellers were the gatekeepers between consumers and publishers. That position has been "made redundant." Even major publishing houses are now selling direct to consumers. They are adapting; it's time that bookstores did as well.

    Your experience with used book sellers has been mine as well. Used book sellers are much more helpful, much more knowledgeable, and much more embracing of technology to help their customers than any new bookseller. Used book sellers are so used to competing against everyone else that I think they are by nature more adaptable.

  40. Molly - you have a good point and I think in a way online book groups and blogs are replacing community ones. And probably for good reason. I plan on writing something about that later in the month, since I've been mulling it over for a while now.

    And I agree--sometimes it's a question of change with the times or die out.

    Chris -- I think that PODs might change things for the independent book seller as far as it relates to the availability of obscure titles. If I know I can get any title I want from my local store versus a megastore, I'm likely to choose the local one (small price differences are no big deal to me, but large ones are, that's fore sure!).

  41. Mary Beth -- there are times when I like to browse, too. Not too often these days, for the reasons Ann mentions, but occasionally I do. If I actually made the trip to the bookstore more often, I'd be more likely to pick up those spur of the moment finds. It's really fun to discover something on your own without a recommendation or hunting specifically for it. Part of the joy of reading, in my opinion.

  42. Ann,

    We shall agree to disagree. I believe that local, independently owned stores & bookstores occupy an important niche in our communities. In the case of bookstores, they often work cooperatively with used book stores and libraries to foster a love for books and support of literacy. Show me a community that allows a *good* bookstore (new or used) to die away and most likely you'll find a community that does not support it's library system.

    This economy is going to wipe out those bookstores that do not provide the service and other qualities customers are seeking. But, in our race to the biggest discounts, it will also take out some darn good community-supporting bookstores.

    My point goes beyond bookstores though. I fear we will not appreciate what our local small retailers give our communities until they're gone.

    BTW - Amazon and other internet outlets are also hurting used book stores. Most used bookstores charge half of the original list price. The book dealers purchase these books for very little. The profit margin is very lucrative. However, since one can also find good quality used books on line for 25 cents, many are starting to consider used bookstores too expensive. It's the same problem. The owners of used bookstores employ local people, pay rent, collect local and state taxes and donate to their communities charities.

    Our race to the bottom is going to cost us in the long run.

  43. I think you're on to something here, Michele, and since I work in a big box bookstore, I can attest to the fact that our customers are definitely looking for instant gratification. As huge as the selection is, it is still tailored to the specific demographics in our neighborhood. There's simply no way to stock every single book that anyone might be interested in. Most of our orders only take 2-4 days to come in, and people get upset with us all the time when they find out that no, the obscure/old/possibly out of print book they're asking about isn't immediately available.

  44. This comment has been removed by the author.

  45. Rebecca - I thought of you once or twice as I was writing the post. Wondered what your take would be. ;)

  46. In keeping with what Drew was saying about bookstore "going with the times" and working with new technology, Amazon has an application for iPhones that connects you to your Amazon account. It allows you to take a picture of any item and it will find said item or a close replacement from the stuff they sell. It worked perfectly with books and came very close with other items we tried, differing only if they didn't carry that specific brand. You can then add the item to your wish list or buy it right there on the phone. This makes using Amazon way too easy!

  47. I just got married and moved to a small town with a husband whose goal it to move out even further to a Texas ranch some day. I'd love to have a local bookstore where I could go enjoy the community, but am very glad that wherever I move I'll be able to order books and some book-friendly community online.

    In fact, I wonder if the book blogs are a way of replacing (or adding to) the community that might have originally existed in the local bookstore.

  48. I agree Michele-some of it may indeed be our fault but for me I buy online because it's cheaper for one thing. Another is because of what happened the other day and has happened countless times-I wanted this series of books written by an author in my city. I went to 3 different bookstores and none had all three and I couldn't even make up the series between the 3 of them. I was angry. It's an author from our own city-we should be supporting her. Anyhow I came home and ordered them online. Not only did I get them cheaper I also got them faster. So, I will miss my local bookstore(which is actually shutting down this year for a bigger one across the street) but at the same time it was getting to the point where I used it mainly to go and browse-not actually buy anything anymore because of the prices.

  49. Dar - you just described my feelings of frustration to a tee. I guess I've gotten so used to getting the books I want instantly on Amazon that the whole brick and mortar thing threw me for a loop.

    It's funny - I'm not like that with a used bookstore. I know there may be books I don't find, but the hunt is fun.

    I guess my expectations need to be rearranged or brick and mortar stores need to start rising to customer expectations pretty quick.

  50. Great post and wonderful conversation here! I don't really have anything to add other than all the conversation has me thinking! Thanks!

  51. Michele,

    Your post sure generated a lot of comments and a good discussion.

    Thanks for adding me to your blogroll.


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