My first real job was in a bookstore, on the sales floor of the brand new paperback department in Brentano’s on 5th Avenue in the summer of 1962. I loved that place; I loved that job; and I’ve always had a soft spot for bookstores. But, romanticism aside, the truth is that books are just about the single best consumer product to buy online rather than in a store. For many reasons.
First of all, there’s finding what you want. An online bookseller will be able to offer you 15 million titles or so. A bookstore will offer no more than half-a-percent of the universe (which would be 75,000 titles) and most have far fewer than that. When Amazon began, there were more like half-a-million possible titles and many super bookstores carried 20-30 percent of them (more than 100,000 titles). And even then, before the numbers had shifted so massively, Jeff Bezos saw that books were the best place to start for an internet retailer.
Thus, the odds of finding any particular book in a store have moved from reasonable to minuscule. But on top of that, books are heavy, so if you are going anywhere after the bookstore, carrying a purchase around can be a nuisance. And how often do you “need” that next book right now, rather than it being just as good to get it in a day or two? (If you need it right now, you’d better be really lucky in what you’re looking for and the store you’re going to.)
The point is that book purchases, at least for personal reading (books for gifts and heavily-illustrated books are different, but are a smaller slice of the total sales) have moved from stores to online for compelling reasons, and there is no reason to think they won’t continue to. It is hard to see physical retail bookselling as a growth business.
But, in fact, the number of independent bookstores has been growing for the last decade. This has been a real cause for celebration in many quarters. Publishers are certainly glad to be seeing some additional inventory-stocking outlets springing up.
Why is this? Harvard Business School professor Ryan Raffaelli has formulated an answer based on his “3 Cs”. They are community, curation, and convening. By this he means that bookstores provide a “community” function, their owners perform a “curation” service by winnowing down the book selection, and they offer the opportunity for like-minded people to “convene” around an information quest or a purpose. He alliteratively wraps this all up with “collective identity”. And he discourages us from looking at the profitability of those stores; just the fact that they are there in recently-increasing numbers, he believes, constitutes the important indicator.
Does anybody else see a remarkable congruence between this vision of bookstores and what has always been the function of libraries?
I am no academic and I don’t have much to offer but observation to justify any analysis I put forth. And I can agree that community, curation, and convening are good touchstones for any bookstore owner to keep in mind to build their business. But I can’t agree that these are the explanation for why bookstores have been growing in number.
My nominee for “most important reason for indie bookstores growing in number” is also a “c”, but one that wasn’t mentioned. It is “closing”. By that I mean the “closing” of the Borders chain in 2011, almost precisely the date when the indie resurgence, tracked by number of active stores, began.
When several hundred Borders stores closed at one time, it moved the reduction of shelf space ahead of the declining demand for retail bookstores. Even in the bookstore market of 2010, reduced as it was from two decades before by Amazon and ebooks, there were a lot of people served by those closed Borders stores who hadn’t yet completely made the switch to buying all their books online. That could have been 30 percent or more of existing retail bookstore shelf space that was closed. (Borders was not 30 percent of the stores, but all of their stores were very big ones.)
So independents have seized an opportunity. Somebody smarter than I am ought to look at where the indies are and where the Borders were and I’d bet they’ll see a correlation. If they could also overlay the closed Barnes & Noble stores and the ones that have had their book inventory drastically reduced, they’d likely find more examples of substitution. Independent bookstores are substituting for the remaining portion of the demand that used to be supplied from the big store chains.
There is likely also one other factor at play — not a new one — behind the recent increase in the number of independents. To be consistent, let’s label this one “compromise”. All these independent bookstores are started and run by entrepreneurs who, most likely, had a career doing something else before they started their bookstore. I’m going to guess, without supporting data, that many of those bookstore owners could be making more money doing something else. But the psychic rewards of owning and running a bookstore, including the attraction of managing the first 3 “c”s , are sufficient to attract capable people to compromise by owning and running one rather than spending their time doing something where they might make more money.
It has always been true that selling books is a labor of love for many of the people who do it. But these days the book retailing network depends more than it did years ago on that motivation to maintain their physical access to book consumers.