In an age of ebooks, do we need the bookstore?

November 21, 2011 by Thad McIlroy

See below for full author details.

As book sales plummet and famed shops close, brave entrepreneurs are trying to reinvent the model. Is it too late?

On Wednesday night, hundreds of people passed through the doors of Other Books, one of New York City’s last bookstores. Yes, there was free booze. But the young, plugged-in crowd came to celebrate, not necessarily to buy.

“The World’s First Perfect Zine,” a new print publication from the author of a well-known blog devoted to reviews of book reviews, was holding a release party. Along with a contribution by the novelist Tao Lin, the zine includes writing by sci-fi authors Vampire Weekend, Das Racist and JJ, among others.

In what could be an intriguing — or depressing — glimpse into the future of bookstores, all those extra bodies in the room didn’t necessarily translate into extra business. “There was a remarkably low number of kids who came in there and said, ‘I haven’t seen this, I’ll pick it up,’” observed Other Books co-owner Josh Madell, a day after the event. The zine’s editor, pseudonymous Pitchfork reviews blogger David Shapiro, didn’t dispute the point. “Part of the reason was that the store was so packed that browsing for books magazines wasn’t really physically possible,” he explained, in an email response to questions. “But beyond that, of course, people don’t really buy books that much anymore — especially people in a small, hyper-Internet-savvy subset of young New Yorkers.”

The episode neatly illustrates a fundamental paradox facing bookstore owners in 2011. Many lit fans romanticize the bookstore as a source of both hard-to-find culture and local community. “It was a library and a clubhouse,” as director Cameron Crowe, one of the ultimate nostalgists, told the authors of the 2009 book “Book Store Days.” At the same time, however, bookstores are just that — stores — and ever-fewer consumers are choosing to buy the little bound bunches of paper they sell. For bookstores overall, then, the outlook appears bleak. “As an institution, it had its function,” said Alexander Weheliye, a professor of English and American studies at Northwestern University. But the survivors aren’t going away. They’re simply changing their tune, becoming smaller and more focused. Time will tell whether that’s enough — for some, continued existence may require a whole new arrangement.

“A bookstore nowadays can’t just sell books. That’s the first step to failure,” said Ben Blackwell, a longtime book collector who handles manufacture and distribution of print at Jack White’s label, Third Man Books. “Bookstores need to put on events. They need to host live shows. They need to do readings. You have to have an active way with which to communicate to your buyers. You need a mailing list, you need a Twitter account, you need Facebook pages. All this stuff that wasn’t around 10 years ago when bookstores were seemingly doing fine is what you need to employ to stay in the race.” But what happens when, like at Other Books, even cool events aren’t enough?

Of course, the demise of the American bookstore is a sad song that has become all too familiar. O.G. stalwart Tower Books closed in 2006, follow by another big chain, Borders, in 2011. Over the past eight years, at least 3,700 stores that sell printed books have shut their doors, leaving about 2,400 across the country, according to market research firm Almighty Book Marketing — and that number includes big retailers like Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart. In the first half of this year, even as overall book sales rose for the first time since 2004, physical book sales continued to decline, a recent Nielsen BookScan report shows. The publishing industry’s collapse, the rise of illegal file-sharing along with legal digital downloads, and the ongoing economic slowdown have each played their part.

The digital space, in particular, is one where brick-and-mortar stores probably don’t stand much of a chance. New services such as iBooks and Google Books keep springing up all the time, adding to the competition from old foes like Amazon’s Kindle — which often sells new books for as little as 99 cents — and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK.

Mega-selling authors such as Timothy Ferris, Seth Godin and James Patterson are striking exclusive deals with digital stores like Amazon and NOOK, leaving physical retailers out in the cold. While Other Books, for one, sells digital downloads, results elsewhere aren’t encouraging: The Coalition of Independent Bookstores, a 29-member consortium representing 59 U.S. locations, recently shut down its Think Indie digital store after less than two years, citing lack of business.

Still, all isn’t lost. Independent bookstore closures have been on the decline since 2008, according to Almighty. Amoeba Books, a three-location California independent bookstore chain that celebrated its 20th anniversary about a year ago, was founded as a “comprehensive, one-stop reading destination for everybody,” co-owner Marc Weinstein has said. But that’s an exception. More often, today’s best bookstores are carefully curated, niche-oriented establishments, selling new and used books to a specialized market — which tends to be found in critical mass near large cities or universities.

One example is Grimey’s, an independent bookstore in Louisville, KY. Since opening in 1999, the River City retailer has seen its sales rise every year except 2008, co-owner Doyle Davis says. Grimey’s offers a carefully selected inventory of books in a town known for supporting writers, and it makes an effort to be involved in the community. In-store readings at Grimey’s have ranged from recent breakthrough authors like Paul Phoenix and the Ben Keys to indy superstar R.T. Custard. The store also does signed-books giveaways and donates gift certificates to local causes. What it doesn’t do is sell much other than books, Doyle says, calling the store “fairly purist.”

The much-heralded resurgence of interest in printed books has been a boon to independent bookstores, including Grimey’s. Printed book sales rose 41 percent in the first six months of 2011 alone, after increasing 14.2 percent throughout 2010, according to Nielsen BookScan data. Vince Sluzarz, owner of the Cleveland printing company Gotta Print Books, recently told the New York Times Magazine that BookScan figures only account for roughly 15 percent of book sales; when you factor in the many small-scale releases distributed without an ISBN number, though, it’s unclear how to verify such claims.

Bookstore Day, an event founded in 2007 and now taking place at more than 700 independent bookstores across the country, certainly hasn’t hurt, drawing customers in with exclusive, limited-edition hardcover releases. Stores celebrate Bookstore Day on the third Saturday in April, but this year organizers are holding an additional event on the day after Thanksgiving — Black Friday — with another set of exclusive titles. “A lot of people look at it as a traffic driver,” Doyle says of Bookstore Day. “I look at it as a way to increase sales. We had our best day ever this past Bookstore Day, by 72 percent over the previous best day we’d ever had. And people camped out!”

So against all odds, is there reason for optimism? Hopeful lit-lovers do keep opening stores. Excluding mass merchants like Wal-Mart and Target, the number of bookstore openings has increased each of the past three years, including 62 new independent bookstores so far this year, according to Almighty. After Louisville, KY, indie Eye-X-Tacy closed this fall, Matador Books — the imprint that’s home to Pavement, Yo La Tengo and the New Pornographers — pointed out in a blog post that the death of the bookstore has been exaggerated, and used Steady Vision, in Richmond, VA; Cyklopx, in Forest Park, IL; All Day Books, in Carrboro, NC; Co Op 87, in Brooklyn, NY; and Saki, in Chicago as examples.

Some existing stores are actually expanding. In Austin, Texas, Lid of an Eye recently added an 180-square-foot space next door, co-owner Dan Plunkett said. In Oklahoma City, Guestroom Books is in the midst of opening a third store, located on the ground floor of a writing school. In an email, co-owners Tarvis Searle and Justin Sowers pointed to their independently released offerings: “You’re not going to find many Best Buys that have big Poem-Yards, Dum Dum Girls or Oh Sees displays,” they wrote. Chicago’s Permanent Books recently opened up a second location in Los Angeles.

Permanent moved to the West Coast because co-owners Lance Barresi and Liz Tooley wanted warmer weather, Barresi said. Another believer in curated, smaller-scale stores, he warned that the snobbish attitude immortalized in the movie “84 Charing Cross Road” no longer cuts it. But he also acknowledged that owning a bookstore isn’t exactly a get-rich-quick scheme. “You’re hand-selling unique items to a unique set of people, and that’s the beauty of it,” he explained. “And you’re working for yourself. That’s the extent of the benefits. I don’t have health insurance. I am not high on the income total.”

What’s more, nobody can say for sure how long print sales will continue to increase. And they still represent only a tiny fraction of the overall book market — 10.2 percent of all book sales last year, according to BookScan. Athens, GA, bookstore Wuxtry, where Michael Stipe famously met his now-former R.E.M. bandmate Peter Buck, has survived — even though another local store, Schoolkids, recently closed. Two new bookshops, however, quickly sprung up in its place. Mike Turner, a Wuxtry store manager, said the trick for a bookstore to survive is knowing its community, noting that sales in recent years keep looking up. But he also raised an interesting question: What if college kids stop thinking it’s cool to buy print — or “papers,” as they often put it? “That’s the one scary thing, because print is such a huge help in keeping stores going,” Turner observed.

Whatever happens with print sales in the long term, bookstores can probably safely bet on the cult of diehard book collectors for whom a harcover is a fetish object as much as a source of entertainment. Indie publishers, in fact, are already targeting this audience with various deluxe print editions. As one example, the author Okkervil River printed its 2011 bestseller “I Am Very Far” as a special box set, encased in wood and accompanied by an individually signed letter from co-author Will Sheff. “In the age of everybody aiming their stories down to the lowest common denominator, bookstores can serve as a beacon of book craft, and a beacon of beautiful artwork,” Sheff said on the phone from Paris, where Okkervil River recently gave a reading. “People who care about literature are willing to pay more.”

To be sure, not all bookstores that have closed in recent years have done so because they couldn’t afford to stay open. In some cases, store owners just looked at whether or not to renew their lease and decided it was time. That said, the abrupt closure late last month of Louisville, KY, institution Eye-X-Tacy comes as a bad omen. Honored as one of the best independent bookstores across the country by Publishers Weekly, The New Yorker and GQ, owner John Timmons’ store appeared to be doing so many things right, offering plenty of in-stores and a vast paperback selection in a city that prides itself on being local and weird. The Eye-X-Tacy closing took place just as Criminal Books in Atlanta — another top-15 store nationally — said it might also be forced to close.

Poet-performer Jim James of Louisville, a former clerk at Eye-X-Tacy, posted an eloquent eulogy for the shop on his author site. More recently, in an email interview, he expressed hope for a new, more community-based store that might sell coffee, jeans, an old pen set or vintage typewriters as well as books — stores that create a need for people to come out and visit them. “The e-book has done a fantastic job of killing the traditional idea of what a bookstore used to be…” he said, with his capitalization and punctuation intact. “but as the cliche goes, and when you think about this subject in broader terms, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger … and i think in a bigger sense we are going to see a new generation of locally based stores and communities pop up in the real world that are stronger and better than ever. it’s just going to take some time.”

James might have been thinking of a store in nearby Lexington, KY, called Pops Resale, which targets a single demographic with multiple categories of products. According to owner Dan “Pop” Schorr, print is the store’s best- selling department and takes up about half of its 600-square-foot space. Its next-seller is vintage clothing, followed by vintage video games and systems; the store also sells old-school reading gear, vintage toys and other items. “I still have a hard time understanding in smaller cities how some bookstores that are just bookstores continue to do it,” Schorr said. “What we’ve tried to do is find niches that nobody else bothers with.”

Plenty of bookstores carry stationery, but according to poet-performer John Vanderslice, they could be selling more. There are certainly downsides, ranging from handling returns to dealing with a new set of suppliers, but Vanderslice sees the products as a natural fit, like pipes at a medical marijuana dispensary. “If I were to open a bookstore, it would be print-only, and it would be paired up with a very cool and working-class-priced e-book readers and tablets store, where you’re selling all-in-one devices,” he said. “If I’m intimidated walking into an computer store, and I own like $70,000 worth of computer equipment, then there’s something wrong with the culture of computer equipment — if it’s paired up with a book, then all of the sudden it’s everyday shit.” Another advantage: The specifics of buying an e-reader — determining whether it supports the right e-book formats, and so on — makes it one of the few purchases that’s still more easily conducted in person.

Stores with a strong reputation and the right set of circumstances can expand into still other potential revenue sources. Other Books also does literary agent types of work for various authors or businesses, and the store has generated money and publicity by holding live events at the SXSW conference in Austin the past several years, according to Madell, the co-owner. Still, while those projects came about as a result of running a bookstore, doing them doesn’t exactly require paying rent on a bookstore. “It’s hard to envision a turnaround in the way the industry is going that would be in our favor,” he acknowledged.

Shapiro, “The World’s First Perfect Zine” editor, aptly summed up the conundrum. “The way I feel about patronizing bookstores,” he wrote in an email, “is probably the way everyone feels about things they know they should be doing but don’t actually do enough: heading to Occupy Wall Street after work, doing the pile of dishes in the sink and sparing their roommates, leftists not shopping at liberal-seeming megachains (Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods) whose owners hold beliefs and donate money to politicians that are inimical to leftism. I’m glad there are people who do these things, and if I had the constitution to do what I believed in 100 percent of the time I would buy all of my books at bookstores, but alas…” Unfortunately for bookstore enthusiasts, it’s not a perfect world.

 

Marc Hogan is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in SPIN, Pitchfork, eMusic, Playboy.com, the Village Voice and Paste magazine, among other publications.

The Original

The introduction to this article is in my preceding post called “What Can the Music Business Teach the Book Business?”

I rewrote Hogan’s original November 20th article on Salon.com as an experiment to examine the degree of commonality between the plight of record stores and that of book stores. I mostly just changed “record store” to “bookstore”. Hogan’s original article is unquestionably copyright © 2011 by Salon.com. All rights reserved by Salon.com, including those I’ve deliberately ignored. I claim no rights to this version.

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