Are Real-World Bookstores Doomed?

By , July 25, 2009

July 24, 2009 — I decided this week that “real-world bookstores” really are doomed to a much smaller role in our society.

I’ve mentioned shopping at local bookstores in two book reviews I posted in my blog.  Way back in January 2002, I wrote a review of, in which I observed how browsing at a physical bookstore creates so many more “opportunities for discovery” than shopping online. In my review of Joomla 1.5: A User’s Guide posted today, I observed that the shelves at my local Borders stores carried many old (obsolete) computer books, and very few new titles.

It appears that Borders and Barnes & Noble (the two big-box bookstores in my area) have both “downsized” their computer-book sections, and they’ve mostly accomplished this by simply not offering any newer titles. Pick any major software program or technology, and look for books on that topic in a “big box” bookstore. You’ll find more books about obsolete versions than current ones; and for some reason, the obsolete titles aren’t even discounted.

A second problem is the organization of computer books on the shelf.  When I went shopping for books on PHP and MySQL, I found them scattered in many different locations on the shelves. It’s pretty clear that the staff in these stores don’t understand enough about these topics to understand where to re-shelve books. Of course, most customers also re-shelve books in random locations. When I complained to a Borders store manager this week, he said that many customers in the computer section just read what they need and don’t buy the book.

Of course, computer books are just one small section in “big-box” bookstores, and most smaller bookstores don’t offer computer books at all. The reason is simple: computer books have a very short “shelf life,” since a book about verison 2.x is obsolete as soon as version 3.0 is released.  The travel section seems to share the same fate, with relatively short “shelf lives” (and often sporting the year as part of the title). The magazine sections are also poorly-maintained, probably due in part to their typical proximity to the coffee area.

That’s not the case for many other types of books: a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 printed in 1948 contains the exact same text as a copy printed in 2009 (although the new edition might add an introduction or commentary article to try to persuade readers to select the newer edition).

But in many categories, including “timeless” genres like poetry, the selection in “big box” bookstores is also shrinking. I assume that this is partly due to demand: if people don’t buy many poetry books, the stores will shrink that section and allocate more space to categories which people demand more.  But it’s also impacted by paid promotions: publishers pay huge fees to have their books displayed prominently (and ideally in great excess, to create the appearance of strong demand.  In many sections, “slotting fees” may result in an increased number of shelves allocated to fewer unique titles.)

Where does this end?  I find it much less appealing to “browse a bookstore” today than I did 10 or 20 years ago.  That includes both “big box” bookstores and small local bookstores where I used to find eclectic titles, books of local interest, and often surprisingly large selections in some genres.  In past decades, when I traveled I often took time to browse in local bookshops.  I also made a conscious effort to buy books from small local bookstores, even paying a slight premium, to support local businesses.

Today, unfortunately, many of the bookstores — where I spent many hours and many dollars — carry a smaller selection of books, often shrinking the specialty sections that drew me in. Quite a few have closed.

Of course, most of the small bookstore owners blame the “big box” bookstores and for their shrinking sales. (The independent bookstores’ lobbyists have even persuaded legislators in several states to enact unconstitutional laws to try to force Amazon to collect sales tax.) It is certainly difficult to profit from a small local bookshop when consumers are presented with the appearance of broader choice and more convenience through “big box” bookstores and e-tailers.

But when I visit local bookstores (tiny or large), I’m not seeing a meaningful effort to create or maintain a competitive “edge.” Quite often, I see superficial efforts like the fake “handwritten staff recommendations” posted on some stores’ shelves, or a “local interest” section that contains few genuinely-local titles.  I’m certainly not seeing any price competition, except on a few best-sellers (which admittedly represent a huge portion of most stores’ revenue).

Sadder still, I often find a better selection of books in an airport newsstand than in much larger bookshops.

I’m saddened every time I find an empty storefront where a local bookshop used to be.  I’m disappointed when I find less reason to visit any bookshop because of reduced selection.

One Response to “Are Real-World Bookstores Doomed?”

  1. Mark Welch says:

    Last Friday, I visited downtown San Francisco and had hoped to stop in at Stacey’s Books, an 85-year-old institution on Market Street near the Montgomery Street BART station. Alas, I learned that it closed last year. More and more of the oldest, best-respected independent and small-chain bookstores are closing their doors.

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