Bad News for Independent Book Stores

Jim Hamilton
Jan 2, 2011

In December the Minneapolis Star Tribune published an article called “Local bookstores fall to ‘e-book revolution’” about how the combined impact of the economy and the Internet had resulted in the recent closing of four independent book stores in Minnesota. Probably the most depressing aspect in an overall depressing story was the following quote from a representative from one of the bookstores who said, “We’re really now a showroom for books.” What she means is that after browsing in the store, most people then either go home and buy the book on-line or avoid the print version of the book entirely and purchase the e-book.

As I look at the gift giving behavior in our household for Christmas, the good news is that many of the gifts given and received were books (physical ones, not e-books), and yet the bad news for brick & mortar stores is that most of those books were ordered through Amazon.com. If you know what you want, how can you beat the ability to buy at a good price and have it shipped to anywhere you want? They’ll even gift wrap it for you (for a price).

Although I did most of my shopping on Amazon, once the Christmas shipping deadline had passed I visited a nearby independent bookstore, the kind that’s much loved by the locals but at serious risk given the changing dynamics of the retail book market. I browsed a little and found some books that appealed to me. I don’t think these choices would have occurred to me if I had looked on-line. That’s the serendipity of shopping in person. I also bought a calendar, which is one of those items that you really want to see before buying. The store staff was friendly and knowledgeable and they wrapped my purchases for free. But what worried me as I walked around the store was the lack of inventory. Shelves that in the past were bulging with books were bare or barely used. In prime selling season this just didn’t seem right, and with the memory of the Minneapolis Star Tribune story fresh in my mind I wondered if the store was just trying to work through their inventory prior to an early 2011 announcement of a closing. I hope not but the odds are clearly set against them.

A little closer to home there’s a used bookstore that I expect will disappear before long. It’s the kind of musty old place in a barn where you can browse forever and find treasures if you look hard enough. Yet if I’m looking for a specific used book I go to Amazon.com. My local used bookstore can’t compete with that.

In high school I was an usher in a one-screen movie theater. Those are all gone now. After college I worked as a paste-up artist. You can’t do that anymore (ditto for typesetters and film strippers). More recently we’ve seen how alternate methods of delivery have impacted brick & mortar video stores. Brick & mortar bookstores are in trouble too (see Borders recent announcement).

There is no doubt that fewer books will be printed as distribution shifts from brick & mortar stores to Internet sales and e-book delivery. While that’s bad news for brick & mortar stores, it’s not all bad news for print. One modern idea that has caught on is that a production digital printer can be a virtual warehouse of books. Books are printed on demand with much less waste. And those who want an e-book can avoid paper entirely if they so desire.

For dinosaurs like me there is still something special about print. I can’t imagine ever giving a virtual gift like an e-book. I love the Internet but I love print more. I send Christmas cards and hate to get e-greetings. (Could anything be less personal than sending an e-greeting card as a link inside an e-mail?) As we enter 2011 I think the writing is on the wall for traditional brick & mortar bookstores, but something else is equally clear. Internet-driven production of on-demand books will benefit from this changing distribution model.

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