Category Archives: Bookstores

Bye Bye Twice Sold Tales

Closed SignThe flood of bookstore closings doesn’t seem likely to let up, at least not soon. Now that I’ve transitioned to the dark side, I wonder how much time I’ll spend in good old-fashioned, paper bookstores. Borders has garnished much attention lately, with the most recent news in their ongoing saga that they are about to be delisted from the NYSE. They’ll be closing a hundred more stores, at best. At worst, they’ll go out of business entirely and take all 650 bookstores with them.

I’ve always felt that one grand exception to this trend will be second-hand bookstores. They’ll continue to sell all the books that are already out there. They can specialize in limited and collector editions, and all around remain a bastion of paper. So I was dismayed to read that one of my favorite second hand bookstores in my hometown of Seattle, Twice Sold Tales in the U District, will be closing. I used to shop there almost daily when I worked at the neighboring University Book Store. I couldn’t afford many new books, even with my employee discount, so was always on the prowl in Twice Sold Tales. (Though the U Book Store did give me great benefits, and I read a ton while actually at work… those were the days.)

Twice Sold Tales will be missed, but I can take some heart in that it’ll continue online. And the owner seems to be making out nicely as he relinquishes his location to Chase. Really? Is this the state of the book world these days? Banks are chasing away bookstores. Also, what will become of the kitty cats who inhabit Twice Sold Tales? I’ve always thought that would be a grand way to be reincarnated, as a cat who lives in a second-hand bookstore.

Must I dash this dream too?

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Barnes & Noble: The Injured Kid on the Block?

I worked for an independent bookstore in the late 90s where we saw our foot traffic plummet when a Barnes & Noble opened up in the neighborhood. They were open until 11 p.m. We closed two hours earlier, and that apparently was enough to lure many of our customers away. All around, my poor independent had the feel of a sinking ship about it, back then.

How much things have changed.

It’s been widely reported that Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale earlier this month, and that this may be a gamble on the part of founder Len Riggio to take the company private. This weekend, the New York magazine ran a fantastic article detailing both the company’s history and its battle with investor Ron Burkle. The piece doesn’t mince words:

Riggio was trying to say that, whatever becomes of books as physical objects in this new age of digital distribution, he is certain people will still pay for the pleasure of reading. Assuming he’s right, the more pertinent question is whether they will be spending their money at a Barnes & Noble. Sales numbers are down, and the company is valued at a third of what it was worth four years ago. If it is to avoid the fates of Tower Records and Blockbuster, it will have to figure out how to compete in a world where prices are falling and nimble competitors like Amazon and Apple are offering in actuality what the superstore bookseller used to promise only figuratively: immediate, cheap, and limitless selection.

The article gives a great account of both Riggio and Burkle, as well as a history of how the chain came to be where it is today. After seeing this bookstore chain as the behemoth enemy for so long, it’s odd how much I feel sorry for it now. I really would hate to see it go. I’ve become used to having gargantuan bookstores everywhere. Barnes & Noble has been a mecca whenever I’ve spent more than a week back with the parents in suburbia. There’s something about having this massive chain so fully permeate American society that makes books feel front and center. I love humongous bookstores, even if they are part of a chain.

It does seem that Barnes & Noble has its work cut out for it though. Just as it’s facing the most serious shakeup the book industry has witnessed for a few centuries, it’s also distracted with squabbles amongst shareholders. It’s sheer size works against it. Stockholders want profits, and all that real estate is worth a pretty penny too. Independents have far more freedom–no stockholders or crashing stock markets, much less billionaires bent on hostile takeovers, to fret about. They can focus on readers and their local community. Who else do we depend on for all those book readings?

It’s amazing how quickly things have turned. The once mighty goliath now seems the injured kid on the block.

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More Doom & Gloom for Bookstores

Can ebooks grow from their current share of roughly 10% to a full 50% of the book market by 2015? As Mike Shatzkin points out in a brilliant post, everyone seems to agree that this is inevitable, yet few seem willing to consider the full ramifications of such a seismic shift. He calculates that this equals brick-and-mortar sales dropping from 72% today to just 25% of total book sales… in just five years.

It’s unlikely that more than a handful of highly specialized, niche booksellers could survive in such a brave new world. Though his post was really about big publishers, and how shrinkage of shelf space for physical books removes one of their prime advantages, the post got all its attention around the idea of bookstores disappearing. (He follows up on his original premise in a  subsequent post.)  My own earlier post on the likelihood that bookstores will disappear is one of the most trafficked pages on this site. This topic seems to cut right to the core of book lovers.

I fully agree that ebooks are likely to grow fivefold in five years, and the fate of bookstores will likely mimic that of record stores. In the meantime though, just to be contrarian, here’s a few pellets of ammunition that may slow it down a bit and help us all sleep a little better:

People will still buy paper books. It’s often quoted that once you go digital, you never go back. I think this is likely an early adopter trait, and later adopters may not take such a direct route. Anyone who reads occasionally may well flip back and forth between the paper variety and ebook variety. Gift books too, will continue to be the paper variety.

Books will get better. Paper books will adapt to the rise of the ebook long before 2015. We’ll see limited editions with full-color illustrations, super-limited pricey editions with a doodle from the author, and bundles that include paper and ebook in one nifty package. Overall, there will be a renewed focus on the production of the paper book as an art in its own right, something that goes above and beyond the words on the page.

Bookstores already know how to fight. First the chains were going to put the independents out of business, then the online stores. Yet independent bookstores still survive. They may never thrive, but they’ll find ways to continue even as ebooks clobber the market. Booksellers are in their business for love, not money, and that has a great way of rallying support.

People don’t go to bookstores to buy books. Each time I go to my neighborhood bookstore, I chant a little mantra in my head about how I’m just going to look. I won’t buy anything. Really, I won’t. I promise. And then an hour later I stumble out like the book junkie I am with a bag full of new titles. I don’t go there to buy books. I go for the experience. I love browsing books online, but it doesn’t even come close to doing it in a real, flesh and paper bookstore.

Luddites will save us all. There’s a kernel of folks out there who would rather burn down a library than pick up an ereader. No one really knows how extensive this group is, but it is composed of avid, vocal readers. Yes, some will be converted. But many will go to their grave with a paper book clutched to their breast. They’re also willing to pay a high premium. Until all these folks die off, there will be a market for good old-fashioned paper books.

Of course, the above probably won’t matter much once the price (with discounts) of an ereader drops to zero. Still, it’s a nice little fantasy…

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Do We Need a Bookstore Day?

My post about the fate of physical bookstores in an ebook world gets much love from Google. It’s not just writers who are concerned about our beloved bookstores, it seems.

On the radio this week, I’ve heard frequent mention of Record Store Day. It’s tomorrow, Saturday, April 17. Record stores? Ahhh, yeah, I remember those. Apparently this is the third annual Record Store Day, which is a grassroots effort between independent record stores to promote music in vinyl and disc form. From their site:

This is the one day that all of the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music. Special vinyl and CD releases and various promotional products are made exclusively for the day and hundreds of artists in the United States and in various countries across the globe make special appearances and performances.

Those in the US can find a participating record store on the Record Store Day site, along with more information about the origins of the program. Will bookstores one day need a Bookstore Day? Do they need it already? Record Store Day highlights one of the strategies independent bookstores can employ. They can’t compete on price, online will always have something cheaper. They can’t compete on convenience, downloading is the be-all and end-all of instant gratification. But they can create a community in the online world and inject this into the physical world to pull customers into their stores.

Powell’s is a great example of an independent bookstore that has not only survived disruptive change, but thrived as chain bookstores fail in their local Portland market. Megan Zabel wrote a fantastic article on this strategy for Publisher’s Weekly last October. Seth Godin also offers great insight in another Publishers Weekly article from the same month.

If I ran a local bookstore, I would pick a dozen or so categories that have natural affinity groups in my town and assign staff members to blog about them and create an e-mail list of people eager to hear from the store. The store then becomes the center of an idea universe, the connector, the initiator, the place to be. Invite book clubs to hold gatherings in your store and organize special events. Celebrate Julia Child by challenging local cooks to meet up and exchange recipes in your store.

Bookstores will indeed survive, just as record stores do. They just need to change how they think about their business, a practice where cookie-cutter corporate tactics will come up lacking. Independents can indeed thrive. The list of participating record stores for Record Store Day in the Seattle area alone is impressive.

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