Monday, February 29, 2016

Booksellers Are a Vanishing Breed

As I've mentioned in previous posts I work at Reader's Guide, one of the oldest bookstores in Salem, Oregon. When I was hired in '98, we were one of nine bookstores in town. A year ago there were five still operating. Now my store is one of the three remaining. In addition to that one of the stores still in operation closed their secondary location.

For the past two years I've read articles online about how the book business is rebounding from the economic slump. Some say that more stores are opening then ever and the future of independent bookstores has never been brighter. I'm not going to say they're wrong. However, I'm witnessing store after store go out of business which seems to refute their statements. Is this merely a localized problem? I don't believe so. I think it's something else.

Yes, a lot of bookstores have closed because the rent rose too much, or they couldn't survive the economic slump, or Amazon stole too many customers, or minimum wage increases bankrupted them. But most of the stores I've seen close in the last two years haven't been for any of those reasons. They've closed because the owners were well into their sixties and seventies and wanted to retire but couldn't find anyone interested in taking over their successful business. As for stores opening, most of the stores I know of that have opened in the last five years are either part of a national chain (or corporation in the case of Amazon's store in Seattle). Not all of them are and I'll get to that part shortly.

There isn't a shortage of book lovers who dream of owning their own store, just as there isn't a shortage of book lovers who love shopping at independent bookstores. We have a lot of regular customers who have said and are professing their desire to own their own bookstore. If that's the case then why aren't they taking advantage of these great opportunities? They could have purchased an existing store with a proven sales record and established customer base. That's as close to a sure thing as there is in retail. Yet they didn't. I can understand the desire to create a store that reflects them -- their personality, tastes, and expertise -- but the start-up money it takes to do that, advertise, and operate while establishing a customer base doesn't put the odds in their favor. The numbers I listed at the beginning of this post didn't reflect the two stores that have opened during my tenure. Both closed within five years. It's that difficult.

That still leaves us with the mystery as to why no one is taking on successful businesses.

I've thought about this a lot and I've come to the conclusion that there is indeed something that journalists, economists, and other book business insiders may have missed -- or perhaps are not willing to talk about. For the lack of a better term I'm calling it the Millennial Effect.

Before you start screaming at me let me explain. I'm not blaming them. If anything they've helped the industry take advantage of new technologies and sales avenues by proving that e-books aren't a passing fad and that the Internet is a viable marketplace. However, I believe that this had an unforeseen side effect. Online stores are far cheaper to maintain than a brick and mortar store. Plus it doesn't involve the repetitive labors such as alphabetizing or require the vast knowledge base that hand selling requires. Because it's so much easier to sell books online I believe that while there are those who are still in love with the romance of the idea of owning a bookstore, few want to put in the work and financial investment. I think that there are more and more people who, when they speak of opening a store of their own, mean an online store.

Fortunately there are still people who want to invest in brick and mortar stores...but instead of readers being at the forefront, I'm seeing more authors stepping into that role.

Remember earlier when I said that there are other stores I've seen open that weren't part of a chain or conglomerate? That's right. They're owned (or co-owned) by authors. After Borders closed their doors Ann Patchett and a friend of hers opened Parnassus Books in Nashville so there would be a local store where her fans could buy her books and get them signed. Similarly, Nora Roberts' husband owns Turn the Page bookstore (which happens to be across the street from her B&B) in Boonsboro. Gulf Coast Bookstore in Florida is owned by a pair of independent authors and their store sells only independently published books. Now in most of these the authors don't spend a great deal of time at their store. They still spend the majority of their time at home, writing their next masterpiece -- which is as it should be. But I'll admit that the possibility that they might pop in while you're browsing has a considerable amount of pull.

I've only seen a handful of stores like this open and most of them are too new for me to say whether or not this is a passing trend or the new face of independent bookstores. But being an author, and an independent bookseller, I think it may be the new normal. Only time can tell for sure.

No comments:

Post a Comment