I Kill Bookstores

Scott Esposito has an interesting post pointing to a few ideas concerning that ever-present question, "What will happen to bookstores?" He quotes Karl Pohrt of the struggling Shaman Drum bookstore: "What is the next version of a bookstore?" It is, as Scott says, an essential question. No matter how nostalgic we may get about the good old days when indies ruled the earth and everybody read books instead of playing with their internet machines and rotting their brains, the world has changed, and bookstores will either adapt or die. (Much of the problem at Shaman Drum, it seems, lies with textbook sales, a somewhat different beast from trade books, and, I expect, far more doomed, partly because they are generally items of obligation, their sales not fueled by interest, curiosity, and passion. And because most textbooks tend to be priced like precious jewels, buyers will seek out ways to avoid paying those prices anywhere they can.)

From Scott's post, I also discovered the Vroman's Bookstore blog, which I hadn't known about before. A post there called "Let's Tell the World What to Read Next" offers some clues as to where bookstores can go from here -- building off an interview with Seth Godin, who talks about the future of music in a world where selling CDs is no longer going to bring in huge profits, the post applies to bookstores Godin's idea that merchants in an age of abundance can no longer be satisfied with helping to provide stuff to people, but rather, if they want to make a living, they will need to provide guidance and selection amidst the abundance. The best bookstores have always done this, and now they may have opportunities for reaching audiences that they never had before.

At the end of the post, Patrick of Vroman's criticizes the widespread use of Amazon.com links by blogs and websites. This got me thinking further about the whole issue of books and how people get them, and it reminded me of a few sentences recently posted on the Small Beer Press blog:
Amazon take[s] such a huge cut that having books there is almost a loss leader ad for our books in stores. (People still like to pick up and see what they’re buying—and our books are all printed on pretty pretty recycled paper.)
I can't pretend to have all the answers for how bookstores, or any other kind of stores, will survive. But I can look at my own practices as a frequent book buyer, library user, teacher, blogger, etc. -- reading and writing are the central elements of my life, for better or worse. And many of the things I do are the sorts of things that kill bookstores.

I don't think of bookstores as receptacles for my charity, and so when I shop at independent bookstores, it's not usually to try to help them stay in business (the one exception to this was the Oscar Wilde Bookstore when I was living near it. But I didn't buy enough.) When I was in the NY metro area, I tended to shop at independent bookstores when I bought new books -- St. Mark's, Shakespeare & Co, and McNally Robinson (now McNally Jackson) were my favorites. I shopped there because I would find things at those stores that I wouldn't have known about if I hadn't gone in. I use the internet to buy books I already know about; I use bookstores to make discoveries. The latter is much more fun -- browsing is an addiction -- and also leads to much more impulsive buying, which is bad for my wallet and good for the health of bookstores.

Now I live in rural New Hampshire, and the nearest independent bookstores that can provide me with much opportunity for discovery are at least an hour and a half's drive away. I don't much like driving, so I don't tend to go to them. If I get the urge to browse, I drive half an hour to the nearest Borders in Concord, which, as Borders stores go, is actually pretty good. I stopped in yesterday for a rest after 3 hours of driving around doing business stuff and ended up spending money I didn't intend to spend, because I discovered there that paperbacks of Steven Millhauser's Dangerous Laughter and Edmund White's Hotel de Dream had been released. So I picked them up. (I was also happy to see Jed Berry's first novel, The Manual of Detection was on display on the front table, but I already had that, thanks to Jed and the publisher. It's the novel I'm reading next.)

The nearest independent bookstores to me do not offer a particularly valuable experience for the kind of reader I am. One is primarily a textbook store in a college town, the other caters to tourists, and does well with that (the fiction section is generally tailored toward the kind of people who really like Jodi Picoult novels. This is smart business -- in a big tourist town, there are lots of readers who like Jodi Picoult and want to read other things that will give them a similar reading experience). It would, in many ways, be suicide for an independent bookstore in rural New Hampshire to cater to someone like me. Thus, I rely on Borders and the internet these days, but whenever I visit Manhattan, I always make a stop at St. Mark's and McNally Jackson, because they are places of joy and discovery, places I feel a certain loyalty to.

As for Amazon.com, that's a more complex problem. I use Amazon links not because I make a lot of money off them (at best $100 or so a year) but because I like the information they give. I have thought about switching to Powell's a few times, and may yet, but it's still not quite comprehensive enough, though they seem to get better by the month. Indiebound is useless to me because I don't care where you buy your books -- what I want is to be able to give you information about the book, let you look for other books like it, let you find used copies if you want, etc. I want a link to give you the most information and options with the fewest clicks. So far, Amazon does that best for me.

As for buying new books from Amazon ... I hardly ever do it. I am a publisher's nightmare: I buy used books and I use libraries. Partly, this is because I do get a number of books sent as review copies from publishers (fewer these days, since I've cut back on reviewing). Mostly, it's because I'm not independently wealthy and yet I want to read a lot. I buy small press books out of loyalty to certain presses -- each year at Readercon, I buy at least a few of the Small Beer books I don't already have, for instance -- but the big publishers only occasionally, such as yesterday. I'm glad not everyone is like me, because otherwise no books would be published at all, but so it goes.

So these days, yes, I kill bookstores. I buy used books, I use libraries, I link to Amazon from this blog. I'm not feeling too much more guilt than I felt when I stopped using the local video store and switched to Netflix. It increases my access to movies, and it adds to my happiness. I'm sorry the local video stores have all gone out of business, but they rarely had anything I wanted to see, anyway.

We now have the option of abundance, and the business models that survive will be the ones that give us the most satisfying, least confusing path into that abundance, and help us navigate when we're there. Places that provide discovery and joy, surprise and wonder. That's what bookstores were all about even in the days of scarcity, and I expect, with some creativity and adjustment, they can continue to be that still.


  1. I'm frequently (and, to be honest, a little unfairly) frustrated by the oft-repeated lament for the dying independent bookstore. I feel bad for bookstore owners, and for those readers lucky enough to live in major cosmopolitan areas blessed with remarkable independent bookstores, but on the whole I feel that more readers are served by that model's death and the birth of the current, internet-based bookselling model.

    To put it bluntly, if it weren't for Amazon.com, you wouldn't know who I am. My access to English-language books in a non-English speaking country is limited to bestsellers, and outside of mainstream fiction nearly nonexistent. If it weren't for Amazon I wouldn't be the reader I am today, and I certainly wouldn't have been inspired to blog or review. Financially, too, Amazon makes the most sense - libraries are useless to me (a substantial portion of the English-language section in my local library is made up of my donations) and used book stores are a good but insufficient resource, especially as far as genre fiction is concerned. Shipping costs from the US are high, so it makes sense to make relatively large orders from a single place, and Amazon has the most comprehensive catalogue and reasonable prices for both books and shipping.

    There are a lot more readers in my situation than there are in areas served by independent bookstores, and Amazon not only gives them access to fiction they might not otherwise have come into contact with but gives some of them the first push towards becoming voices we enjoy listening to. It's hard for me to see that as anything but a good thing.

  2. It is the running of the business that is key. When I'm in California I mostly buy books from Borderlands and Other Change of Hobbit, which is partly because Borders and B&N don't stock the books I want, and partly because both independents have knowledgeable, friendly staff whom I can talk to.

    There is an independent bookstore here in Darkest Somerset, but I hardly ever buy from them. They don't even have an SF&F section in the store, and when I go in there the staff always give the impression that they can't wait for me to leave them in peace again.

  3. Whenever I hear people lamenting for indie bookshops, I can't help thinking that it's mostly people who, at the back of their mind, have fantasies about running one of those bookshops.

    Just think... be your own boss, spend your days reading and talking about books, turn people on to new authors. It's the geek equivalent of the indie record store.

    Whilst I have respect for that dream and that piece of social iconography, it just doesn't register with me as a customer. In my experience indie bookshops are like chain bookshops only with less choice and higher prices. the only reason for changing one's buying habits to support that business model is if you value the dream and the imagery they represent.

    Interestingly, the same discussion takes place in the gaming world where RPG gamers fall over themselves to support their 'friendly local game stores' not because they're cheaper or more reliable than getting the stuff online but rather because of this mythical gamestore that forms the hub of a social network connecting gamers with games and organising loads of stuff.

    Just like the indie bookshop where you can discuss books all day and get turned on to amazing new writers, I don't think such a shop exists and if it did it wouldn't be close to standard for the business model

  4. Matthew, I hear you, but some indie bookstores do get it. There is an amazing chain here in Melbourne, Victoria, called Readings which has five inner suburban stores and mails two or more items free anywhere in Australia. Their online service is brilliant.
    I use them all the time. And I visit the bookshops too. Gave a little talk at the State Library alongside the owner a while back, and had to acknowledge that while I like to reread and borrow, I spend a hell of a lot of my book dollars at his shop. (Bought a lot of Christmas gifts there too.)
    So, I think it can be done.

  5. Indie bookstores have more control over what books they choose to stock, what books they choose to feature on that table near the door. The superstores, you're guaranteed a Stephen King/John Grisham/vampire book, as soon as you walk in. Without indies, our reading would probably be a lot more vanilla.


  6. The chains actually offer pretty good selections and allow you to special order anything on the menu. Like any other independent shop, the indie bookstores don't have the buying power and so their options are almost always more limited. There's a chance you might find a new or unknown gem in the indie displays but if you already have an idea of what you're looking for the chains are usually better.

    There's also the homogenization of experience at the chain bookstores (with that experience being far superior to the Crown Books and Waldenbooks days of old) which is why so many people go to Starbucks instead of indie coffeeshops too..

  7. Hey Matt -- as an indie bookseller and a blogger, these are issues I think a lot about! I think the indie bookstores that are wrapping their heads around how they can use tech to better serve their customers are the ones that have the best life expectancy. And IndieBound is making strides in becoming a more useful tool for online linking and sales. Check out the newest developments here: http://www.indiebound.org/blogs/matt/huge-updates-today-indieboundorg, and check out the new campaign to have bloggers link to indies, here: http://bookavore.com/2009/02/09/read-review-linkindie/

  8. Those of us who are trying to save the independent bookstores also admit to killing them. We buy on Amazon, buy used books instead of new, etc. But, you should consider taking one-day bookstore tours near Concord NH (or where ever you live) to get the tactile experience of handling books in the bargain bin, the children's section, the "local" author's section that dominate the best of local bookstores. Try killing them with love - which means show them some attention.

    For suggestions on New England destination bookstores visit: http://www.guidetonewenglandbookstores.com. You can read more on my blog at http://richard-wright.blogspot.com.

  9. First of all, thanks very much for linking to my post. I appreciated your thoughts on the subject, and I actually think we agree on a couple of major points. I would never want anyone to shop with us out of a sense of charity. If we aren't serving your needs, don't shop with us. Period.

    If your needs are simply the cheapest book possible, you probably won't be shopping with us very much. That's just not something we can provide. We do provide other benefits that, in my opinion, make back the extra three dollars you spend on the book. We host over 300 events every year, almost all of which are completely free. We shuttle our customers to the LA Times Festival of Books, providing an author on each book to discuss their work as they ride to the Festival. We have hundreds of recommended reads written by our staff - some of the most well-read, enthusiastic readers I've met. We have a blog that's updated frequently, with fresh, original content, recommended books, podcasts, etc.

    If those things are of value to you, I suspect you'll shop with us. If they aren't, you won't. I really can't fault someone who lives in a remote rural area from buying books on Amazon (although now you can easily buy them from Indiebound.org). Nor do I begrudge people who drive an hour to the nearest bookstore and it happens to be a Barnes & Noble. I grew up in Upstate New York, thirty miles from the nearest bookstore, which was a Borders. I bought my books there. I didn't regret it. I would point out, however, that there was a time in America when places like Syracuse had independent bookstores. Those stores are largely gone, and have been replaced by corporate chain bookstores and the internet shops (Which, by the way, we also have and continue to try to improve). Those stores have weaker local books sections, they host fewer events, and they have less of a connection to the community and much higher turnover. The internet stores (Okay, I'm talking about Amazon here) don't even pay taxes in the states where they do business (except New York, and hopefully soon, California). When you shop with us, you're putting money back into the local community through the taxes we pay and the money we give to charity. Maybe all that is worth something to you. If it isn't, I don't expect you to shop with us. Everybody has to make their own decision on this.

    I live in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, and the reason I chose to live there is that it's full of great little shops. I try to buy as much as I can from these boutiques. Do I end up paying more for my clothes and home goods than if I got those things at the Gap and Target? Yes, but it's worth it to me. I get to live in this fabulous neighborhood full of interesting, unique shops. Some of them have things I can't get anywhere else. I know the equation is different for people living in small towns, but not that different. How many people reading this buy their tires at Costco, but then take their car to the local mechanic to have it fixed? I don't think I'd be able to look that mechanic in the eye anymore. But judging from the trends in business in America, economy of scale trumps all. Most people don't seem to wrestle with these issues as much as the people who've left comments on this post. And that's kind of a sad thing, in my opinion.

  10. Is Vroman's even an indie bookstore? When I think "indie", I think of Skylight Books in Los Feliz, or Cliff's Used Books down the street from Vroman's in Pasadena.

  11. @Luke

    Looks like my last comment got swallowed by blogger. Vroman's has been owned by the same family more or less since it was founded in 1894. It has always been located in Pasadena, serving that specific community. It is larger than Skylight, which is a great indie and a neighborhood bookstore, or Cliff's which is a used bookstore.

    Powell's, in Portland, OR, is a huge indie bookstore, but they are still an indie. They're owned by Dave Powell. They face many of the same problems a store like Skylight faces. I think you're confusing being an indie with using untreated pine shelves. The two are not necessarily synonymous.

  12. Independent and used bookstores are an endangered species, many are closing down and taking their inventories home to sell on line. I don't think they face extinction, but certainly we wont in future see the variety and number of them we now do. This is sad...nothing more exciting than to hit the road in search of treasures in far flung stores...and as you say, to spend time quietly browsing and discovering.

    fyi I've been photographing these stores now for several years, and have over 500 for your viewing pleasure is so inclined, here:


  13. I mainly live in Ann Arbor, and I rarely buy anything at Shaman Drum, the first and fundamental indie store you mention. My reason is that Shaman Drum really has an attitude -- if you aren't in their little clique, they are very unfriendly. I don't usually find that they have any original ideas about what to read (maybe poetry which I don't read at all). The prices are higher even than Borders, which is right around the corner from them. As far as I'm concerned, I find it mysterious that the free market didn't put them out of business a long time ago. Like your opinion and a lot of commenters' (I think) my opinion is that love of indie bookstores is irrational. Except for the clique, I'm not sure what Shaman Drum, for instance, contributes to life in Ann Arbor.


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