Is the Decline of Bookstores Inevitable?

If the mega bookstores disappear, will this open up a new niche for independent stores?

Following the recent news that Barnes and Noble and Microsoft have joined forces to create a new subsidiary company which will focus on and the college text book business, there have been suggestions in the media that the remaining retail stores might ultimately be abandoned in favor of online book selling. While this may seem a natural progression in our ever-increasing technological age, what would this mean for traditional book-lovers?

Given that it was superstores such as Borders and Barnes and Noble which changed the face of ‘bricks and mortar’ retailing for books, wiping out many of the smaller independent stores in the process, it’s hard to have much sympathy for them now that their own retail markets are being eroded by online distributors, especially when they have their own sites. Some voracious readers are probably perfectly happy with the knowledge that now they don’t even have to step outside to satisfy their latest craving, but for others the enjoyment of books is not only in the reading, but in the browsing and the choosing.

At this point, I should probably admit that, generally, I hate shopping and don’t see the attraction of it as a recreational activity, but if the packed parking lots at malls, specially at weekends, are anything to go by, a substantial proportion of the population do enjoy it, despite the rise of online shopping or  the recession. Personally, I’d rather go to the gym than shopping -not only does it keep me fit, but it saves money - unless the shopping involves a bookstore.

Bookstores are a haven for me. I say I going to ‘pop in and buy something’ and I could still be there an hour later. Sometimes I tell myself I’m going to just browse; see what’s out there for future reference. I’m sure there have been occasions when I’ve walked out of a bookstore without buying anything, but it doesn’t happen very often.

There always seems to be at least one book which grabs my attention and just seems to call to me to buy it: often a book which I had no idea existed and would probably never have found in an online search. There is something special about being able to pick up books, attracted perhaps by the cover art, flip through the pages to see whether the style suits, and check out the author bio if it’s a new-to-you author – a satisfying sense of research which is hard to emulate online even though most of the non-tactile options are available on the book-seller’s website.

Scarsdale has already lost the local Borders store. It may not be imminent, but what happens if Barnes and Noble does eventually close its doors?  A quick Google search of alternative bookstores near Scarsdale turns up only specialty stores and those mostly deal in secondhand/rare books. And I’m sure this applies to many other towns, large and small.

Will independent entrepreneurs see a niche that needs filling - smaller, local stores where the owner has a chance to get to know the regular customer and vice-versa, adding further value to the book browsing process? Ironically this would bring the business full circle back to how it used to be, but at a price. Will enough of the book-buying population be willing to pay full jacket price once again for the privilege of a more personalized service or are the discounts more important overall?

Surely there is still sufficient demand amongst all those recreational shoppers and the more ardent book-lovers for the full book browsing/buying experience so that although the retail market might be considerably smaller, it would still be sufficient to provide a living to those independent booksellers who would no longer be competing with megastores. But maybe that is just wishful thinking.

What do you think?

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Mel Parish May 12, 2012 at 02:01 AM
Public libraries certainly have a lot more to offer than the original book lending/research facilities - and if traditional bookstores disappear, they may have an even more important role to play in the promotion of writers via readings etc. - but if online publication and sales take over could we end up with libraries that offer everything but a collection of books? More of a community meeting space than a library.
mlb May 12, 2012 at 01:38 PM
The "Bookstore" just can't be competitive. I recently bought a book at Books on the Common in Ridgefield, CT for $19.99, which was only $11.70 on Amazon when I came home and checked. Sorry to say it, but it's hard to justify shopping local. Sad, but true.
Mel Parish May 12, 2012 at 05:08 PM
I wonder, did you got any pleasure from going to the bookstore? Or maybe you knew exactly what you wanted and were in and out within a minute. If so I can see your point (though you do have to allow for shipping costs on top of the cost of the book from Amazon), but if you spent a good time browsing, isn't that worth something? When you think of all the millions of people who are willing to spend several dollars on a cup of coffee which would cost a fraction of that at home or in the office, some customers are obviously willing to pay for a perceived added value. I guess I just hope that some booksellers will continue to see a niche market there.
Betty Wald May 14, 2012 at 05:48 PM
There's something about a bookstore - I tend to get lost in them and always find something - even a card! When I go to a new place I always check the local bookstore first before the sights - to get the flavor of a place, to see what new authors they feature, to find out about readings, etc. Once there was a bookstore in Hastings so attuned to what I enjoyed reading or teaching, they would call me to alert me about a book I'd enjoy. Alas for me - they seem to be dying out one by one. But there's still Greenwich, Pleasantville, Larchmont with independent bookstores.
Mel Parish May 16, 2012 at 12:10 AM
It's hard to imagine ever getting service such as that offered by that bookstore in Hastings from an online seller. Let's hope that the independent bookstores you mention have benefited from the closing of Borders - it makes you wonder whether some of the other bookstores that shut their doors in the last couple of years might have made a different decision if they had known that Borders would soon cease to exist.


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