When Is It Okay to Let a Bookstore Die?

From Book Riot:

Readers love bookstores. Even the most devoted library power user, audiobook aficionado, or ebook devotee enjoys wiling time away in the aisles. There’s perhaps nothing more romanticized in the bookish world than a secondhand bookstore brimming with stacks of books precariously balanced on every surface. They make for great Instagram pictures — but do they make for a good business model?

Speaking of romanticization, books are often conferred a certain status that almost no other object is. Reading isn’t just a hobby; it’s a lofty pursuit. Books aren’t just widgets; they’re sacred objects. Reading and books aren’t just associated with status and education. They’re also often associated with a kind of moral weight. It’s not unusual for everyone from BookTokers to booksellers to say they promote literacy, which certainly sounds like a noble pursuit.

Getting people to read (or buy) more books isn’t the same thing as promoting literacy, though, if we’re being completely honest. Increasing literacy would involve teaching people (whether kids or adults) the skills of reading, from the most basic phonics and decoding knowledge to more intricate strategies, like spotting motifs and themes, critically engaging with a text, and recognizing bias.

Convincing someone to pick up a random book doesn’t necessarily achieve any of those goals, and yet it still feels like a victory. Bookstores have an air of improving society, of being ethically superior to other businesses. When that veneer is scratched away, though, you’re left with a business that needs to make money. Apart from a handful of not-for-profit or communist/anarchist bookstores, they function in much the same way any other business does.

But while it’s fairly common for independent bookstores to do GoFundMe-style crowdfunding campaigns or to simply ask customers to place orders to keep the lights on, it’s unlikely that a local soap and cosmetics store or a boutique fashion location doing something like this would be received similarly. After all, they’re businesses. If they’re not profitable, why should they stay open?

. . . .

When I started working for a used bookstore, there were piles of books on the ground, and nothing was catalogued online. It was exactly the kind of ~aesthetic~ used bookstore you might see on Instagram. People would come in and exclaim at how lovely it was…and often those same people would leave after 15 minutes of looking around without buying anything. Because the stacks were overwhelming, they trapped dust, and they blocked shelves.

. . . .

Since then, the store has expanded (hooray!) and changed locations. There are no more piles on the floor, and everything is catalogued online. The booksellers there still have people come in and say how they miss the charm of the old store, and specifically that they miss the piles of books on the floor. The staff who had to spend hours moving piles of books around, lugging tubs of books up stairs without an elevator, and searching through the 18 places a title might be shelved largely disagree.

There’s a vision of used bookstores as tiny, cramped spaces filled from floor to ceiling with books in very little order at all. Tucked away in a corner is someone reading, who is likely cranky and will criticize your reading taste. They do not have the newest releases. The idea of finding a treasure in those piles is enticing, but it’s just not a sound business strategy most of the time, and it’s no surprise that these shops have largely disappeared. And that’s okay.

. . . .

Bookstores are not inherently morally superior to any other business, though, and sometimes they just aren’t a good fit. Maybe it isn’t run effectively. Maybe there aren’t enough customers or the rent is too high. Maybe the staff is condescending or unhelpful. Maybe there’s too much competition. I don’t think readers have an obligation to support every physical bookstore. Sometimes, it’s their time to shut up shop.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG isn’t certain exactly what the author of the OP is trying to demonstrate other than bookstores have a past.

PG agrees that “bookstores are not inherently morally superior to any other business” even though he enjoyed physical bookstores in the past.

The problem with physical bookstores today is entirely financial. After the rise of Barnes & Noble and Borders, only a relatively small group of people made much money owning/operating an independent bookstore. Long before Amazon showed up, a typical independent bookstore could expect an annual profit margin of 1-2%.

The widespread shutdown in the United States during the Age of Covid was disastrous for physical bookstores.

From the Open Education Database (PG thinks in 2002):

  • Today, there are around 10,800 bookstores in the U.S.Though it might seem that bookstores are closing at a rapid pace, there are actually still an impressive amount of bookstores in the U.S.; about 10,800 in all, ranging from small, independent retailers to major chains, according to census data from 2002. Yet that number is considerably lower than the number recorded in 1997 when there were 12,363 stores, a 12.2% drop.
  • There are more bookstores today than there were in 1930.

. . . .

  • E-books have captured $3.2 billion of the market.E-books offer readers convenience and the chance to save money on buying books, but they’re also causing bookstores to take a major hit. In 2011, e-books captured $3.2 billion of the bookselling market, and by 2016 that number is projected to grow to nearly $10 billion. That estimate could be pretty close to reality based on past trends; between 2010 and 2011 alone e-book sales rose by 210% and comprised 30% of all sales of adult fiction. Prior to the introduction of the Amazon Kindle, the e-book market was fairly insignificant. Now, with nearly 28% of Americans owning an e-reader device, it’s not uncommon to see sales jump exponentially from year to year.

Link to the rest at Open Education Database

PG notes that the stats listed above are twenty years old.

From The United States Census:

According to data from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns . . . the number of U.S. Book stores . . . dropped from 12,151 in 1998 to 6,045 in 2019.

Link to the rest at The United States Census

PG suggests that sales from physical bookstores were under siege a long time before Amazon was founded in 1994. You’ll recall that Barnes & Noble and Borders put a large number of independent bookstores out of business during their rise to the top of the traditional bookstore market.

From The New York Times (October 15,2020):

The signs started appearing in bookstore windows this week.

“Buy books from people who want to sell books, not colonize the moon.”

“Amazon, please leave the dystopia to Orwell.”

“If you want Amazon to be the world’s only retailer, keep shopping there.”

The message: Buy from these shops, or they won’t be around much longer. According to the American Booksellers Association, which developed the campaign, more than one independent bookstore has closed each week since the pandemic began. Many of those still standing are staring down the crucial holiday season and seeing a toxic mix of higher expenses, lower sales and enormous uncertainty.

Even though book sales have been a bright spot in an exceedingly grim national economy — they rose more than 6 percent so far this year compared with last year, according to NPD BookScan — most of those purchases are not going through independent stores.

. . . .

Still, local independent stores have hustled and reinvented themselves during the pandemic. Mailing books to customers, which used to be a minuscule revenue stream for most shops, can now be more than half of a store’s income, or virtually all of it for places that are not yet open for in-person shopping. Curbside pickup has become commonplace.

Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., sends personalized URLs to customers with a list of handpicked recommendations. Green Apple Books in San Francisco raised $20,000 selling T-shirts, hoodies and masks that said “Stay home, read books.” Other stores have pleaded for customers to donate money.

All that still may not be enough.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Boy, you must be raking it in with all the online business you’re getting,’” said Christine Onorati, an owner of Word bookstores in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J. “It makes me laugh.”

Bookstores across the country face different challenges depending on any number of factors, including their local economies and how they have been affected by the coronavirus. But some broad trend lines have started to emerge, perhaps most of all that bigger, right now, is not better.

Take Vroman’s Bookstore, a 126-year-old institution in Pasadena, Calif. It has more than 200 employees, 20,000 square feet of space and the rent to go along with it. In a normal year, it hosts anywhere from 300 to 400 events, bringing in authors for readings and signings, along with customers who buy books and maybe a glass of wine from the bar. But none of that is happening this year.

Like many other stores, Vroman’s is hosting online events to promote new books, which can attract attendees from all over the country but generally bring in almost no money. Last month, it emailed customers, imploring them to come back.

“Our foot traffic and sales are improving, but still down almost 40 percent, which will not keep us in business,” it said. “If Vroman’s is to survive, sales must increase significantly from now through the holidays.”

At McNally Jackson Books, which has four locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn along with two stationery shops, sales are “unimaginably bad,” according to its owner, Sarah McNally. All six shops combined are now bringing in less than its SoHo location would in a typical month.

. . . .

Allison K. Hill, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, said the group surveyed its 1,750 members in July and received responses from about 400 of them. Of those who answered, about a third said their sales were down 40 percent or more for the year. But another 26 percent said their sales were flat, or even up. The organization plans to do another survey in January, and Ms. Hill said she expects that positive number to have eroded.

. . . .

Even at stores where sales have held on, profits are often down, Ms. Hill said. In the best of times, the margins at a bookstore are paper thin — traditionally, a successful shop hopes to make 2 percent in profits — but operating during a pandemic is even more expensive.

“We’re working harder for less this year,” said Kelly Estep, one of the owners of Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Ky.

Mailing a book to a customer requires more time and labor than ringing it up at the register. Some stores are offering hazard pay to their employees or have dedicated a staff member to greet people at the door, making sure they’re wearing masks and sanitizing their hands before they start running their fingers across the books.

. . . .

“If someone told me this time last year I would be spending $20,000 on postage and shipping materials and P.P.E. and extra cleaning for the stores,” said Jamie Fiocco, an owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the board president of the American Bookseller Association, she wouldn’t have believed it. “We just didn’t have those line items in our budget, or if we did, they were inconsequential.”

Hanging over all this is the holiday season. Ms. Fiocco said her store does about 30 percent of its business in the last eight weeks of the year, and there are days in December when she sells more in an hour than in a normal day. But this year, customers won’t be able to freely swarm the store at the last minute, so booksellers are trying to encourage early shopping.

Perhaps most worrying is that the supply chain has been under strain. There have been issues with shippers, limited capacity at warehouses and backlogs at printing companies, where books delayed from the spring are running up against releases planned for the fall. Among those is a new memoir by former President Barack Obama, which is scheduled for publication Nov. 17 and expected to be the biggest book of the year.

“There’s a Hail Mary here where the holiday season could really change things,” said Ms. Hill. “To have a book like that come out right at this critical time, it could make a huge difference.”

Many store owners are afraid the printers won’t be able to keep up with demand, or that publishers won’t prioritize indies if supply gets tight, so they’re placing large orders up front for some of the biggest books of the season, like a new cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi. (Mr. Obama’s book has required other adjustments: At 768 pages, it will weigh 2.5 pounds, said Matt Keliher at Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minn., so the store had to raise shipping fees or else it would lose money on every sale.) Because the demand has been so enormous, Mr. Obama’s publisher Penguin Random House will be sending orders out in batches for stores across the country, from little indies to the big boxes.

“If we could sell 1,000 copies between November 17 and the New Year, that’s going to make a huge difference in us being viable, so we need those books,” said Gayle Shanks, an owner of Changing Hands Bookstore, which has locations in Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz. “We’re really trying to get the message out, to help customers understand that not just for bookstores but local retailers and local restaurants, if they want them to be there when the pandemic over, they have to support those businesses now.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

From Kirkus Reviews (14 October 2020):

Twenty percent of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing, according to a news release from the American Booksellers Association.

Link to the rest at Kirkus Reviews

From The Los Angeles Times (5 October 2020), a piece written by Allison K Hill, President of the American Booksellers Association:

On the side of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena is a mural of a red and black typewriter with a painted piece of paper bearing the words, “I will forever be in love with you. And that’s not fiction.”

When I commissioned this piece in November 2019 as the store’s CEO, it didn’t seem far-fetched to think that Vroman’s, a Pasadena literary institution since 1894, would be around, if not forever, then for a very long time.

Now the store has said it may not make it through the year.

Anyone who has wandered Vroman’s two stories of curated books and gifts, caught up with a friend there for coffee or wine, or met a favorite author at a book signing, knows the shop’s value to the community. But the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt it — and many other beloved independent bookstores across the United States — an unexpected blow.

I left Vroman’s in February to become CEO of American Booksellers Assn. It’s a dream job for me; I love bookstores and I know that Vroman’s and the other 1,745 independent bookstores that we support across the country are heartbeats of their communities. They are run by individuals who love books and are known for their community support, customer service and curation. Recommendations are made by booksellers, not algorithms; displays are inspired by individuals, not corporate planograms.

In my new job I witness on a daily basis what it takes for indies to do this in an industry not known for its financial robustness. As the joke goes: “How do you make a small fortune in the book business? Start with a large fortune.” Independent booksellers are creative, resourceful, hard-working and resilient, and they’ve needed to be during the pandemic.

Since March many independent bookstores have found themselves having to depend on e-commerce and forced to pivot to curbside pickup. They’ve had to replace live events with virtual ones and enforce social distancing, if their stores are open at all. A July American Booksellers’ Assn. survey of 400 member stores found that many have seen sharp sales declines over last year, and results suggest that some 20% of those surveyed may not survive until January 2021.

This statistic mirrors the Small Business Majority’s survey results from August. The group found that, without additional funding, 26% of small-business owners across the United States may not survive past the next three months, and nearly 44% say they may be unable to survive another six months.

If these businesses close, COVID-19 will be listed as the cause of death, but the preexisting condition for many will be Amazon, whose packages have become ubiquitous in apartment building lobbies and on porches across the U.S. Amazon has been boxing out local bookstores and other small businesses all across the country, resulting in the loss of local jobs, local sales tax revenue, and a sense of neighborhood personality, community and tradition. People may not realize the cost and consequences of Amazon’s “convenience” until it’s too late.

. . . .

The COVID-19 crisis has been heartbreaking on so many levels. People have lost loved ones, jobs and businesses. People have lost hope. On a good day I contemplate all the things I’m grateful for, but like all of us there is so much that I miss from my pre-COVID-19 life, particularly browsing the bustling aisles of my favorite bookstores. The Vroman’s announcement was a jolting reminder that on the other side of the crisis we will have lost many of the things we take for granted.

With this realization comes an opportunity for action: Now is the time to create the post-COVID-19 world we want to live in.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times

19 thoughts on “When Is It Okay to Let a Bookstore Die?”

  1. Bookstores have NOT been friendly to disabled people for decades. I’m disabled and chronically ill – there is no way I’m going into a bookstore to waste my time right now. I had troubled finding stuff to read even when I was much more mobile – the stuff on the shelves wasn’t my kind of books, backlist existed only for a tiny number of authors, and most of my queries to the staff ended up with them saying, “Sorry! We can special order that for you, if you like,” which entirely negates going to a physical store and leaving with the object of your desires (books, people, books).

    So whatever is going on hasn’t been dependent on my business – I don’t feel any regret for something I couldn’t use. If the able-bodied are shopping at Amazon, and the publishing ‘industry’s’ business model continues to be what it is (read Kris Rusch’s blog posts on it), failure is going to happen, just like for the buggy whip stores.

  2. I’m going to take issue with a minor (but characteristic) part of the OP:

    “Increasing literacy would involve teaching people (whether kids or adults) the skills of reading, from the most basic phonics and decoding knowledge to more intricate strategies, like spotting motifs and themes, critically engaging with a text, and recognizing bias.”

    1) Teaching people to read has to do with translating squiggles on paper into words and getting fluent at it.

    2) Everything else in that sentence is about stories, not about reading. Stories come in many forms: oral, visual, written. There is nothing sacred specifically to “reading” in storyland — all stories have the same properties. The pompous vanity of the latter part is, as always, breathtaking.

    We are story-telling animals — nothing could be more native to the way our minds put the world together. Reading is a wonderful add-on, but I’m sure that the most illiterate societies in the world can spot motifs and recognize bias in their stories. They don’t need “proud professionals” to convey that knowledge along with the alphabet.

  3. “So often, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me, and reminded me that there are good things in the world.” — Vincent Van Gogh

    Hate to disagree with Mr. Starry Night himself, but I haven’t been in a local—or any—bookstore in years. No reason, no need. And now there’s COVID. Here’s what one of my local used bookstores has posted: “Our staff is old. We’re trying to be careful. In-store shopping by appointment or chance. Call us. If we answer, we’ll let you in.” Sounds like a fun adventure. But I’ll pass.

  4. It’s ok to let a bookstore die…

    …when sales of items other than books provide a disproportionate share of dubiously-accounted line-item profits, especially when supported by antitrust violations and conflicts of interest up and down the chain.

    …when the real-property-speculation valuation of the physical store location (and/or warehouse, although that’s much rarer) exceeds the valuation of the store’s inventory.

    …when those promoted to management positions have little to no experience actually selling books to actual individual customers.

    …when “predatory pricing” is not merely more than irrelevant (as the Chicago School of antitrust would counterfactually hold, let alone the undercurrent of “if you’re vulnerable to predatory pricing, you deserve predation” in the Austrian School), but a fundamental part of the store’s/chain’s business model.

    …when the store’s inventory consists almost entirely of little boxes made of ticky-tacky designed (however unintentionally) to follow trends and ensure conformity with unstated cultural assumptions, and only marginally of dangerous, dangerous material even slightly outside the norm (let alone actively subversive).

    …when only one kind of person is the intended customer base.

    Five minutes to your closeup, Mr Gaunt.

  5. I love bookstores. And my whole life, I loved LOCAL bookstores. I bought into their whole “We’re local, we’re independent, shop here” campaign.

    When my first novel came out–from Baen Books, a major science fiction publisher distributed by Simon and Schuster–I contacted the 15 Barnes & Noble stores in Michigan, my home state (including one just a little over the line into Indiana). 9 of them arranged “local author” book signings in the first two months. 3 more eventually invited me to group signings.

    I also contacted 50 local indie bookstores near me. I avoided obvious political stores and other “themed” stores, concentrating on stores that sell lots of fiction. I even applied at my favorite, closest indie store, where I had to fill out a lengthy application including email addresses of friends they could contact to promote a signing. (I supplied 30 addresses.) How many “local author” indie signings did I get?



    ONE bookseller contacted me to say he was looking forward to the book, but his store didn’t carry science fiction. The rest NEVER EVEN RESPONDED.

    12 out of 15 vs. 0 out of 50.

    Apparently “Support us because we’re local” is a marketing gimmick, not a sincere belief.

    Barnes & Noble has plenty of problems, but they earned my loyalty far more than the local indies did.

    • A tale of two bookstores:

      In the 1990s, there was a major independent bookstore in Albuquerque that I went to each Saturday. The owner routinely had author signings, from big and small authors, and they always held the signings in the SF&F section, blocking my ability to shop.

      – I would simply turn around and leave.

      I remember one time coming in while a major romance author was there. Even I recognized who she was. Somehow we made eye contact when I realized what was happening, and I walked out at that moment. Yikes!

      The other was Barnes & Noble in Albuquerque. I would go in on a regular basis, and there was often some guy sitting at an empty table, nothing and no one around him. They were authors that had no sign saying who they were, none of their books on display around them, yet the store stuck them there. Yikes, again.

  6. I grew up loving bookstores and miss having many of them around. But as an author, I notice a few things typically overlooked in the usual woe-is-us tale about bookstores.
    a) Authors earn nothing from the sale of used books. Yes, I used to buy these, and was grateful, but they were no cheaper relative to earnings (in my opinion) than many ebooks, for which the author earns royalties.
    b) Backlists, as someone else mentioned, were practically nonexistent for most authors. I wrote for Harlequin, among other publishers, and those books vanished from the shelves within weeks. Sometimes, they were never displayed at all–busy staff simply tore off the covers and sent them back for a full refund. With ebooks, they remain on sale essentially forever.
    c) Also, books used to go out of print, more and more quickly as space shrank and the price of paper, printing and shipping rose. You couldn’t even order them.
    d) Online sites from Smashwords to Amazon to Google allow authors to republish our older books, often revised, and to issue new ones that fall between the cracks of what the marketing departments instruct the editors to buy (which I was told happened a lot). Authors love this and readers love this. Some authors I know are writing new books in series that the publisher canceled but which readers still wanted. Anyone who thinks the publishing industry is or was run in a sensible, wise manner by people who overwhelmingly loved books is at least a hundred years out of date–if it was ever true.

  7. The decline of the indie bookstore started long before Amazon became ubiquitous. Note that the first article talks about a rather drastic decline between 1997 and 2002.

    I get that Jeff Bezos makes a convenient villain, but Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes and Noble, et al., combined with the consolidation of the publishing industry, were already hammering the “small, independent, local bookshop” before Amazon became the behemoth in the room.

  8. What necessary/indispensable service does a given store provide?
    If the answer is: none…
    …walk away in peace.

    Let it sink or swim on its own to deal as it can with:
    – rising rents
    – $15 minimum wage mandates
    – unionization demands – https://www.thepassivevoice.com/pandemic-sparks-union-activity-where-it-was-rare-bookstores/
    – volume based book costs
    – cover printed maximum book prices
    – declining foot traffic

    It is not up to customers to fix a store’s problems; most will be busy enough with their own.

  9. Sadly, most of the bookstores I have ever gone to are no longer in existence.

    I was born in 1956, so I don’t think that this is surprising. Most of the bookstores were owned by a person, not a vast corporation, so in time that person retires or dies.

    Someday, the vast number of books that are now cycling through the used bookstores, will degrade and not be available for sale. When that happens there will be a problem that cannot be solved.

    We have already lost vast numbers of books that way. I don’t know what the half-life of books are but most will not survive this century.

    In 2001 Terry Bisson wrote a book called The Pickup Artist, that was built around the need to destroy book, music, etc…, to make room for new works.

    – It was a comedy, but too many authors actually think that way.

    What’s ironic, is that book appears to already be out of print. It looks like it is available from Kindle by the author indy publishing his backlist.


  10. I recently ferried 15 good-sized boxes of paper books to HPB and got $50 for them. It was sad, it was hard, but I realized that I was never going to read them – I don’t like reading paper books anymore. Simple as that.

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