May 2011 Articles

Bookstores: An Endangered Species?

By Claire Kirch ’84

I embarked on my first full-time job in publishing in 1995. Great timing, as it turned out. The book business was on the cusp of a revolution.

Back then, the industry operated much as it had for decades. The only Amazon I knew about in the book world was Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis, one of the country’s oldest feminist bookstores.

Of course, the Internet changed everything. Since Jeff Bezos launched 15 years ago, new and backlist titles from both the largest New York City publishing houses and the most obscure small presses have become available to consumers at the click of a mouse.

Today, literary agents and established publishers still play a large gatekeeping role. But self-publishing— once synonymous with looked-down upon vanity presses—has become a viable option for many good authors, who produce their books at little cost, offer them on Amazon and other online sites, and promote them using Facebook and other social media. Publishers Weekly, which declined for years to cover self-published books, now devotes quarterly supplements to them.

Physically, too, a book isn’t what it used to be. Increasingly, the bookbuying public is purchasing e-books and downloading them onto an iPad or a dedicated e-reader like Amazon’s Kindle or the Barnes & Noble Nook. Indeed, the explosion in e-book sales has been absolutely astonishing, with 2010 e-book purchases tripling those the year before.

As a booklover, and someone who works in publishing, I find this new terrain both exciting and scary. I worry, for starters, about how the rise in self-published books and the concurrent jettisoning of experienced editors by publishing houses trying to improve their bottom line will impact book quality and the nurturing of promising writers, traditionally the purview of seasoned editors. I also worry about new writers breaking through as big publishing houses take fewer chances on unknowns.

Most of all, though, I worry about the future of bookstores, those essential bricks-and-mortar outposts of our literary culture. As the number of consumers going online to purchase print and e-books has grown, so has the challenge to their very existence.

A prevailing concern when I started in the business was that large bookstore chains, like Barnes & Noble, would drive small, independent booksellers out of business. Nora Ephron even made a hit movie about it, the 1998 comedy You’ve Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

The plight of independent booksellers is still precarious, but today even the two largest chains are struggling. In February, Borders Books & Music filed for bankruptcy protection. A month earlier, in January, Barnes & Noble laid off about 50 of their book buyers. In search of profit ability, the chain has closed stores and devoted more space to e-readers, games, and educational toys.

Publishers, meantime, are expanding their efforts to get their books displayed and sold at clothing, food, and other specialty stores, the New York Times recently reported. Anthropologie, for example, now carries 125 titles, five times the 2003 number.

It’s great that Marc Jacobs and Cracker Barrel are selling books in greater numbers, and some Sam’s Club stores now hold author signings. But these alternative outlets are no substitute for traditional bookstores.

For me, there are few joys greater than leisurely browsing a well-stocked bookstore, and discovering easily overlooked gems with knowledgeable guidance from the store’s owner or staff. Readers would never have heard of sleepers like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, or countless other great finds if it hadn’t been for booksellers talking them up loudly, starting the buzz. With fewer bookstores, we’ll hear about the books with the most dollars behind them, and the books by the biggest celebrities, but not necessarily the best reads. Communities will lose an important resource and gathering place. Authors will lose a vital showcase.

I wish I had the solution for stopping the erosion. My own local bookseller closed her doors earlier this year, and I’m still in mourning. Buying books on the Internet is convenient, and e-books may be the wave of the future. But driving by that shuttered shop is almost physically painful.

Claire Kirch ’84 has been the midwest correspondent for Publishers Weekly since 2003. She lives with her family in a house crammed with books in Duluth, Minnesota.

Bryn Mawr alumnae currently operate two bookstores— The Lantern in Washington, D.C., and the Bryn Mawr Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts — and one annual book sale, the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale in Princeton. At one point in the Alumnae Association’s history, there were more than 10 bookstores in operation.