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January 16, 2007

Fact for the Day

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Number of independent bookstores in the U.S. in 1991: 5,200.
Number of independent bookstores in the U.S. in 2005: 1,702.

Source: "Chain Reaction: Do bookstores have a future?" by Paul Collins in the Village Voice.

Collins' article is a good one generally, by the way. He explains clearly two of the main reasons why American publishing and bookselling are in the state they're in: the "returns" boondoggle (bookstores can return unsold merchandise, er, books for full credit -- is there another industry where retailers can do likewise?); and the 1979 Thor Power Tool Supreme Court ruling, which changed inventory accounting rules and was thus responsible for the explosion of the "remainders" market.

And should the bookselling chains be allowed to become book publishers themselves?



UPDATE: The Written Nerd reports from the frontlines of the indie-bookstore scene. Bookseller Chick delivers the news that the bookstore where she has been working is closing.

posted by Michael at January 16, 2007


The "indies" (at least good ones) were always thin on the ground over much of the country. Sinkingship is in a metro area of ca. 250,000; before the arrival of B&N and Borders in the 1990s, there were exactly zero respectable general bookstores before that--a B. Dalton at a local mall was the largest, and it was pathetic.

Having a volunteer gig at a local historical society's little bookshop, the most important thing I've learned is how hideously expensive stocking a good collection of books is. When it comes to carrying "serious" books, even $10,000 does not buy that much.

Posted by: thaprof on January 16, 2007 8:43 AM

I found it strange that the linked article never once mentioned Amazon. Surely that company has had a huge effect on the bookstore industry.

Posted by: Peter on January 16, 2007 9:26 AM

It was Seth Godin's assertion years ago that publishing was a natural evolution for a company like Amazon, especially for established authours who are no longer under contract with an old-line publisher.

Posted by: Matt Clarke on January 16, 2007 9:28 AM

and the 1979 Thor Power Tool Supreme Court ruling, which changed inventory accounting rules and was thus responsible for the explosion of the "remainders" market

Before 1979, and the internet, there was a store in Princeton that sent out catalogs for remaindered books. It was responsible for educating many budding New Urbanists, because they always had cheap copies of a Civic Art reprint.

Posted by: john on January 16, 2007 11:08 AM

What I really miss are the old, musty antiquarian bookshops with meandering shelves and mysterious connecting rooms that seemed to go on forever. My favorite in San Francisco was the Green Apple bookstore out in the avenues. Many of those were terrifically fun to browse around in on dreary, rainy weekends. Where are they? While I lived in Atlanta in the nineties, I literally saw them vanish in front of my eyes as a result of The ones that were left were few and far between and probably survived by selling books online. I miss the browsability of the old used bookstore. Yes, I can find far more titles online at places like, but it isn't nearly as much fun. And I find I buy twice as many titles as I need because of bad translations and various confusions associated with buying a book without being able to peruse it beforehand.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 16, 2007 12:36 PM

Borders and B&N are reasonably satisfying places to shop. The selection is good and new books are attractively displayed. If there's a downside, it's the chains' cookie cutter design — no local flavor or individual quirkiness.

But, to be honest, how many indie bookstores are very distinctive? I'm sure we could each cite an example or two of indiosyncratic stores, but by and large they're just spaces with shelves. I shopped at Cody's, cited in the article, back in the '60s; even then it was just a large anonymous space, and while the employees may have been book lovers and knowledgeable readers, my recollection is that they were expected to spend their time on the job stocking merchandise or helping customers locate a book they were looking for, not holding literary seminars. In other words, pretty much the same as at B&N today.

Indie booksellers will rarely be able to hold their own as general-interest, all-purpose stores when a big box goes up across the street. But I believe they can still thrive as niche marketers. In particular, used book stores require a level of knowledge and judgment that doesn't lend itself to corporate rationalization, and often appeals to a different type of customer than the chains. And specialist stores that can carry an even larger stock than the big boxes in one subject area — such as detective and suspense novels, cooking, travel — can probably draw enough of a clientele in population centers to stay afloat.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 16, 2007 12:40 PM

I too think that the article was a reasonably fair assessment of the current state of the bookselling business. And I agree with Rick Darby's take.

Not yet mentioned is the fact that chain branches seem to have leeway to stock to suit local tastes. For instance, the Borders nearest Ft. Lewis and McChord Field is strong in military history while the B&N near the University of Washington has a good art and architecture section.

Then there's the question of "returns." At first glance, changing that system could well lead to fewer titles being displayed -- something I would not like.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 16, 2007 12:58 PM

Michael – Interesting stuff. Of course, one thing that the Village Voice article omits (apart from any reference to Amazon, as another poster noted) is the fact that book sales are still robust despite the decline of indie booksellers.

I love books, love reading, and have a substantial book collection, but I can’t really relate to the whining nostalgia-fest laid out in quotes like “Hard though it may be to face the fact, the bookstore of today cannot primarily be a place for those who revere books as things-in-themselves.” Bookstores have to find a way to compete, and not just depend on another mope-fest about how things “used to be.”

I recall when the big book retailer Crown (and later SuperCrown) was seen as the bane of bookstores. But Crown was displaced by Barnes and Noble and Borders, who now must compete with Amazon and perhaps soon print-on-demand.

I noted to some friends how the first Harry Potter novels disrupted traditional bookselling (and gave Amazon a big boost). The American editions for the first novels were published months after the British books, but when impatient kids pushed their parents to buy the book from Amazon UK and other online British booksellers, even though they had to pay more. Publishers got the hint and now, of course, publish simultaneously in the US and the UK. And bookstores get in on the action by having midnight Harry Potter parties.

So, if booksellers cannot come up with innovative ways to survive and to appeal to book buyers, they don’t really deserve to stay around.

By the way, two recent news stories point out other book store issues. A January 5 NY Times story noted that “Book publishers braced themselves for a financial blow this week after a bankruptcy filing by Advanced Marketing Services, a book distributor…. The company filed for bankruptcy protection last Friday, reporting more than $200 million in debt to dozens of publishing companies. Its creditors included publishers large and small, among them Random House, which is owed $43.3 million, and Good Books of Intercourse, Pa.., which specializes in books about the Amish and the Mennonites and is owed nearly $1 million.”

And a December story about the closing of a New York mystery bookstore shows how demographic changes are as important as the rise of chain bookstores:

Murder Ink, the mystery bookstore on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is going out of business after 34 years, along with its younger sister store, Ivy’s Books and Curiosities. On Monday the owner, Jay Pearsall, posted a sign in the window announcing that Dec. 31 would be the final day….

The list of suspects is long. The rent has been increasing by 5 percent a year and currently runs $18,000 a month, Mr. Pearsall said. A Barnes & Noble at 82nd Street and Broadway has been chipping away at business for years. Amazon and eBay killed off mail-order business and sales of rare books.

And at some point in the mid-1990s, Mr. Pearsall said, he realized something even more troubling.

“I used to do apartment buys,” he said. “Children of people in the neighborhood who had died would sell their parents’ books; lots of them immigrants, lots of them Jewish, educated, liberal, and they just had all these great books. I realized that our clientele was dying.”

Posted by: Alec on January 16, 2007 2:26 PM

for full credit -- is there another industry where retailers can do likewise?

Given that there's a word for it, I'm sure it's reasonably common. It's probably common for items with large markups. Those exist for books because they're a form of intellectual property.

Posted by: Douglas Knight on January 16, 2007 3:56 PM

Books and coffee. Before Starbucks, 99% of the population (myself included) couldn't give a shit about "good" coffee because we'd never tasted it BECAUSE there were no coffeehouses in dreary suburbia or isolated rural towns. Now you can get good coffee almost everywhere, thanks to Starbucks.

Same with books. Sure university towns and major cities had great bookstores, but the town I grew up in had a B. Dalton in the mall, that was it. Now it has a B & N and a Border's. Once again, good products delivered to people outside of metropolitan areas.

The allure of exclusivity has a lot to do with people who lament companies like Starbucks and B & N. What was once available only to them is now available to the unwashed, and that galls them. How can they feel superior!? I sort of understand that. And of course, the sameness that comes with chain stores can be depressing, but only for the lack of atmosphere. The service and selection is top-notch.

And as someone else mentioned, the independents were never and still aren't these amazing salons where great wits traded barbs in between shots of absinthe. The were and are usually funky places with OK selection and erratic service. I think we tend to romanticize a bit.

Exceptions can be made, of course. Powell's is a national treasure, Cody's was really excellent, City Lights is historic (although a bit narrow and let's face it, the selection ain't all that, but hey, the Lusty Lady is right next door!).

Posted by: the patriarch on January 16, 2007 4:50 PM

"Number of independent bookstores in the U.S. in 1991: 5,200.
Number of independent bookstores in the U.S. in 2005: 1,702."

Whether true or not, this isn't what the reference article says. In that article, the numbers refer only to membership in the ABA; why do you assume that this fairly reflects the number of independent bookstores? (I can imagine any number of other causes for such a membership decline.)

At any rate, it seems to me that there are many more new/used bookstores (usually stores that carry some new books and many used books). And it seems that many of these stores have a presence on both eBay and Amazon as well.

Finally, what possible reason could you present for stopping a bookstore chain from publishing books? Would you also end the existence of Ford dealerships? After all, Ford won't sell directly from the factory to a Toyota dealership (or an Apple dealership, for that matter). Isn't that directly analogous?

Were it not apparent, I think it entirely appropriate that B&N should publish its own books, especially as many of these are neglected classics that other publishers have chosen to dump.

Next, if publishers are willing to sell books on consignment, I think it's their business. I think they're fools to do so, but that's a business decision and none of my affair.

Finally, I find the practice of cover-stripping to be absurd and offensive, though again within the purview of the sellers and publishers. But I also find notices stating that owning a stripped book is some sort of theft to be risible. If you can't trust the people you trade with, don't trade with them.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 16, 2007 8:04 PM

Thaprof -- Indeed. There were many regions, cities, and towns that didn't have access to even a semi-decent bookstore before the chains moved in.

Peter -- If you run across a short piece that mentions all the factors affecting the bookbiz, let me know about it!

Matt -- Talk about really smudging the lines, eh? Who's going to be a publisher and who's going to be a retailer? And how about once print-on-demand becomes widespread?

John -- I remember that outfit and bought some books from it. Are they still around?

Charlton -- The great indie bookstores may have been too rare but they really were great. That's an interesting point too: the way shopping online affects satisfaction. Buying things sight-unseen has its upside and its downsides.

Rick -- There was a recent report about how many new indie bookstores had opened last year, something like 91 of them. Presumably a few of them have devised some workable angle for survival. I wonder what niches they're best able to mine ...

Donald -- Last I heard (a few years back now) Borders gave local branches considerable leeway (and encouragement) to tailor their stock to local tastes and demands. I wonder if that's as true of B&N. I also wonder what all the effects of changing the returns policy would be. At the moment it encourages vast overordering and inefficiencies. But presumably there'd be all kinds of unanticipated effects if it were to be changed.

Alec -- Where bookselling's concerned I'm a tough-love kinda guy myself! And it's important to recognize that more books are more easily available at better prices to more people than ever before in history -- that's not a minor thing.

Douglas -- I wish I knew more. Still it's odd, isn't it? Being able to order, say, 30 copies of a book, and then if it doesn't sell, return 28 of them for full credit? What kind of business would tolerate such practices?

Patriarch -- The really great bookstores really were/are something ... The superstores are terrific in some ways, but they lack personality and eccentricity, which used to be a big part of the hanging-around-books experience. I think the "superiority" thing you point out certainly played a role. In addition to that I suspect some urban people have experienced a bit of what I have. Because culture means a lot to you, you go to a lot of trouble to set up and lead a life in a place where culture can be had -- quirky bookstores, live music, etc. Then, as the chains move in, your city becomes like a large urban mall. You wander around thinking, Sheesh, given that there's a Borders out in the 'burbs, what's the point of city living? Actually there is some point to it still. But that's less about feeling superior than just feeling ... kinda shafted or something by the turn life has taken.

Doug -- I've always been given to understand that ABA membership numbers are a good indicator of the number of indie bookstores generally. That's no doubt why Paul Collins was using the ABA figures himself. Happy to be corrected of course if this isn't the case. But it's certain in any case that thousands of indie bookstores have closed in the last 15 years. Whether it's a good or a bad thing ... Used books, yeah I read somewhere that the web has actually been very good for the used books business. That feels several years old, though. I should poke around and see if it's still true. As for retailers becoming publishers, I'm not sure about it, which is why I asked the question. I can see a "why not?" response. I can also see some reason for concern -- vertical monopolies and all that. As I said above, though, I think widespread and widely-available print-on-demand facilities are going to smudge the publisher/retailer lines quite a lot anyway ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 16, 2007 10:57 PM

At the Montana Festival of the Book, Russell Chatham has been saying for years that the two things that plagued him most were returned books from bookstores who felt free to plaster ugly stickers on them (Chatham is an artist whose books usually have beautiful covers from his own paintings -- I've bought books for their Chatham covers more than once. The contents are generally up to the wrapper.) and the fact that he had to pay property tax on his warehouse contents, which he foiled by simply not binding the books until they were shipped. (Bind-on-Demand)

Gary Dunham, editor of the U of Nebraska Press, told me that probably Print-on-Demand had saved -- if not the press -- Bison Books, the invaluable imprint of classic titles. I was relieved to hear this, since I'd seen many of the Bison Books being sold for only a few bucks as remainders and worried that they would disappear forever.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 17, 2007 12:00 AM

I'm a big fan of the niche/indie mystery bookstore "Partners & Crime" in Greenwich Village. Of course, I believe that that store is run as a "hobby" by the owners (they all have day jobs). However, they have started to "publish" (out-of-print or never-in-print-in-America mysteries) as Felony & Mayhem Press.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on January 17, 2007 11:55 AM

My own hometown lost one of its best indie bookstores some years ago, Barber's Books. Larry McMurtry bought it and moved all the inventory to his mega-indie store in Archer City - Booked Up!

Booked Up is a great store, but it is 3 hours from our house. Not exactly in the neighborhood.

I remember shopping at Barber's - you could go upstairs and in the darkened corners find stacks of books so covered in dust, you knew no one had touched them for years.

Barnes & Noble or Borders in all their fluorescent-lighted glory lack the ambiance, the magic of old-time bookstores.

But, at least with their white-glove cleanliness, I don't have to use my asthma inhaler to stay browsing for long periods of time!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on January 17, 2007 5:04 PM

Comic-book stores have suffered the same or worse drop over the same period, and yet the product is largely non-returnable. I'd look elsewhere for the culprit.

Posted by: Joshua Macy on January 18, 2007 4:11 PM

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