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Who is Killing All Those Independent Bookstores?


As you walk around downtown Annapolis, do you find it strange that there is no general bookshop? Briarwood Books on Maryland Avenue is an excellent used and antiquarian shop, and a few of the stores on Main Street do carry some books, but there is no shop devoted to a general selection of current books. Yet there was a time when more than one such shop could be found downtown. Is there an opportunity here? Maybe you could realize that seemingly universal dream-owning a bookstore!

Annapolis is not alone in its lack of bookstores. Small locally owned bookstores across the country continue to go out of business, despite statistics that ironically show more people than ever before are buying books. If you saw "You've Got Mail" you know that this is because the owners of the huge, eeeevil, chain bookstores go around ruthlessly squashing charming little bookshops for sport, and then running off with their perky proprietors. That makes a good story, but how true is the implication that independent bookstores simply cannot survive in a market with Barnes & Noble, Border's, etc.?

Well, there is no doubt that the chains are tough competition, but they are not invincible. Having managed the local Barnes & Noble for a few years I know that if you look at any subject section there you will find that there are hundreds of in-print titles that are not stocked. There are many opportunities for specialty bookstores to carry a depth of inventory the chains cannot. Such a store combined with a Web site to reach global customers of that specialty would certainly be competitive. In fact, speaking of online bookselling, if the chains are invincible how is it that Amazon.com-started only a few years ago in a garage-has sent them scrambling to put up Web sites of their own?

Most businesses react to competition by adjusting their practices, often simulating what their competitors are doing. The good ones even strive to be proactive and beat the competition to the punch. Booksellers often are hesitant to adapt. It is as though they feel their primary mission is something loftier than running a business. Books are sacred, right? I mean selling books is superior to selling vacuum cleaners, lingerie, or legal advice isn't it? I think it jars these folks terribly when they see the chains selling mountains of books, as if they were so much…uh, product. Truly, many independent bookstore owners are better suited to the life of a poet.

There is something interesting is concealed underneath this noble, "anti-chain" attitude. In fact there is a fine line between nobility and flat out arrogance. In the circles of the pointy-headed literati it is an accepted premise that independent bookstores are good for our culture and chain bookstores are bad. Why, then, are independents failing and chains succeeding? If you accept the premise then your answer, no matter how tactfully worded, will be that people are too stupid to know and do what is best for themselves. This may well be true, but you should be aware of the ground upon which you are building your argument. Some pretty unsavory characters have held it before you.

The scorn against chain stores is not exclusive to bookselling. Consider the current brouhaha over the Wal-Mart planned for Parole. If you are opposed to a large chain discount store there, the problem is not Wal-Mart-the problem is that there is a market for one. If you could change the market you would have a long-term solution. This would be a very difficult task. And so the opposition will fritter away whatever strength it has hacking away at the branches rather than the root, and Wal-Mart or some other similar store will open in the end. If it puts some other stores out of business when it does, that still says more about those other stores and their customers than it does about Wal-Mart.

And the customers really are the ones who have killed independent bookstores aren't they? Oh we all profess a great love of cozy little bookshops with their hand selected inventories and their inevitably unique stamp of the owner's personality. We love them like we love furniture, nostalgic memories, and the brick streets downtown. But as a wise person once said, "Love doesn't pay the bills." So, until some other wise person can figure out how to make a living from the words "Oh I just love your shop," Main Street will remain be a charming place to buy T-shirts.

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