Will Bookstores Disappear?

PhonographBlogging for the British Telegraph, Basheera Khan does an admirable job of rousing the book-reader rabble in the provocatively titled, No more bookshops? Good riddance. I worked at Books Etc. briefly when I was a student in London, and can’t say I’ll miss them much. That said, the post raises some questions, even if it does seem to be primarily constructed to produce the sort of tirades seen in its comments section.

Are bookstores truly in jeopardy? Will they go the same way of the Virgin Megastore? A favorite of mine while in London, I was surprised on recent trips to San Francisco and Chicago to find the Virgin Megastore in each city boarded up. Reading through my journals from a couple decades back (yeah, that loooooooong ago) I get nostalgic about how much time I spent hunting down record stores, how excited I got when I found a new and super cool shop. It was an obsession during the year I spent in Europe in the late 80s, when every record on every shelf in every store became a coveted import. I spent a small fortune on 12-inch singles. (Anyone want the entire oeuvre from Howard Jones?) Today I don’t spend nearly as much money–or time–on music as I did then. Is it because I got old and boring and busy? Or is it because the way music is distributed changed? Probably a bit of both.

A lot of those records I bought weren’t so much about the music, but all that stuff that came packed with it, even just the cover art. CDs never had the same pull, even though some artists did get fancy with clear plastic covers, inserts, and strange printing on the CD itself which made it impossible to know what music was actually on the thing. Then came the download. The idea of buying music without being able to hear it first, based on a pretty cover, now seems bonkers. And with that switch, I pretty much stopped going to record stores, as it seems has everyone else… almost.

Also on my trips I noticed that independent record stores everywhere have hung on, and interestingly enough, seem to be growing their vinyl selections. Again I find myself trawling through their racks for vinyl, not CDs. Vinyl comes in two flavors now: vintage and cheap, or newly released and expensive. Could this be what is to come for bookstores? The bland tiny mall store may disappear (if it hasn’t already) and the mega chains may have to work hard to stay afloat, but could the independents–with both new, limited editions and vast selections of used books–end up the only bookstores in town? They’re the places we go not for just the books, but for knowledgeable staff, local readings, and a sense of community. Buying a physical book, unlike an ebook, is about a whole lot more than just the book itself. The only question is: how many of us are willing to pay a premium for the experience?



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7 responses to “Will Bookstores Disappear?

  1. four eyes

    You may have something there with the idea that the new printed book market will contract and the used/limited edition book store will level out/maintain.

    I just got a kindle for xmas (yea!) and my ex-BIL was saying that printed books will go away and e-books will rule. But I think for fogies my age there are still too many book habits you can’t do with e-books (get them at the library, share with friends, browse for them in a bookstore). I didn’t even a get copyright page one I downloaded (am I doing something wrong?).

    Don’t get me wrong. I love the kindle. And I won’t miss toting a bunch of books with me when I travel, but it’s going to take awhile before it replaces all my printed book buying.

  2. D.J. Morel

    I’m upset just that Elliot Bay is moving. What I love most about that store are the creaking floors and leafing through all the wonderful books, but it won’t be the same without those floors.

    The idea that the whole printed book will disappear is silly, too many books already out there. It seems much more likely that ebooks will be in addition, with much lower barriers to entry.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Kindle once you’ve had it for a while. Two of my family members have one now too, so definitely not just for the gadget crowd anymore.

  3. four eyes

    speaking of “not just for the gadget crowd,” one of the most surprising things for me so far is that to use it the first time all you had to do is plug it in. Easier than my iPod.

    I guess I did have to make sure my amazon 1-click account was set up, but if it hadn’t been a gift and if amazon hadn’t dumped all my settings inexplicably a few months ago, I wouldn’t’ve even had to do that.

    love whispernet. in fact, it was so easy to use I “accidentally” bought my first book without realizing it.

    my only other thought (aside from the fact that I can see myself with a big bill for all the “cheap” books) is that there is a lot of self-published crap available on kindle. Not all of it is crap, certainly, and it does make me think about what you were saying at the tea room about using as a way to self-publish but have an income stream.

  4. unfortunately we lost bailey coy on broadway. i take a personal responbility as i saw the decline and lack of vision to change with the times. i dont think book stores will go away but will B&N dominate and continue to push beloved local stores out like bailey coy? im afraid so unless the little ones embrace change and move to sell more used books and connect online.

  5. i should also add that id like to see independent stores receive the same wholesale prices that a B&N would receive. i know thats highly unlikely due to a myriad of reasons but id love to see some sort of incentive for making it easier to keep local indie stores around.

  6. D.J. Morel

    Yes, losing Bailey Coy was sad, though it seemed a long time coming. Each time I went in there they had fewer and fewer books on the shelves, which is never a good sign.

    I think independents may have a leg up in the new ebook world though, if they do adapt and focus on used and collectible books of interest to their local communities. Bookstores pay almost nothing for used books too, so their margins are very strong. Half Price Books seems to be doing very well.

    As far as the flood of self published books on Kindle, I noticed that even on the Amazon site. While trying to buy presents this xmas I had to scroll past tons of cheap books, that weren’t of interest. Customer reviews seem to be key, I’d trust something with a dozen solid reviews (and one or two that hate the book) no matter who the publisher is.

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