29 January 2012


It is a story told time and again in the history of commerce ~ over the past century, small local stores providing everything from food to clothing, furniture, hardware or music, have been driven out of business because they could not compete with larger store chains which buy in volume and sell for less.  In recent decades entire chains have disappeared, either bought out by competitors or rendered obsolete by shifting technology.  

Thus it is with bookstores.  Julie Bosman writes in the NYTimes that "Inside the great publishing houses ~ grand names like Macmillan, Penguin and Random House ~ there is a sense of unease about the long-term fate of Barnes & Noble, the last major bookstore chain standing.  First, the magastores squeezed out the small players .... then the chains themselves were gobbled up or driven under, as consumeers turned to the Web.  B. Dalton Bookseller and Crown Books are long gone.  Borders collapsed last year.

"No one expects Barnes & Noble to disappear overnight.  The worry is that it might slowly wither as more readers embrace e-books.  What if all those store shelves vanished, and Barnes & Noble became little more than a cafe and a digital connection point?  Such fears came to the fore in early January, when the company projected that it would lose even more money this year than Wall Street had expected.  Its share price promptly tumbled 17 percent that day.

"Lurking behind all of this is Amazon.com, the dominant force in books online and the company that sets teeth on edge in publishing.  From their perches in midtown Manhattan, many publishing executives, editors and publicists view Amazon as the enemy ~ an adversary that, if unchecked, could threaten their industry and their livelihoods.

"Like many struggling businesses, book publishers are cutting costs and trimming work forces.  Yes, electronic books are booming, sometimes profitably, but not many publishers want e-books to dominate print books.  Amazon's chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, wants to cut out the middleman ~ that is, traditional publishers ~ by publishing e-books directly.

"Which is why Barnes & Noble, once viewed as the brute capitalist of the book trade, now seems so crucial to that industry's future.  Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket.  But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books.  If something were to happen to Barnes & Noble, if it were merely to scale back on its ambitions, Amazon could become even more powerful and ~ well, the very thought makes publishers queasy.

" ... These are trying times for almost everyone in the book business.  Since 2002, the United States has lost roughly 500 independent bookstores ~ nearly one out of five.  About 650 bookstores vanished when Borders went out of business last year.  No wonder that some New York publishers have gone so far as to sketch out what the industry might look like without Barnes & Noble.  It's not a happy thought for them.  Certainly, there would be fewer places to sell books.  Independents account for less than 10 percent of business, and Target, Walmart and the like carry far smaller selections than traditional bookstores.

" .... What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect.  Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one ....  What's more sales of older books ~ the so-called backlist, which has traditionally accounted for anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the average big publisher's sales ~ would suffer horribly.

" 'For all publishers, it's really important that brick-and-mortar retailers survive,' said David Shanks, the chief executive of the Penguin Group USA.  'Not only are they key to keeping our physical book business thriving, there is also the carry-on effect of the display of a book that contributes to selling e-books and audio books.  The more visibility a book has, the more inclined a reader is to make a purchase.' "

I'm sitting here, trying to imagine a world without bookstores.  It is as inconceivable as a world without public and university libraries.  And yet we and our institutions co-evolve.  How many could have predicted thirty years ago that the Internet, personal computers, portable smart phones, wireless technology, GPS, and e-book readers would transform every corner of our lives .... and leave very few corners private?

Don't get me wrong, I love technology, when it is done well.  But I do not want to see bookstores go the way of the buggy whip.  When I lived in suburban Philadelphia, I was close to both Borders and Barnes & Noble stores, as well as smaller independent bookstores.  In Vancouver, Washington, it was an accessible drive across the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon and Powell's City of Books, whose four floors cover a city block.  Here in Missoula, Barnes & Noble is a three block walk away.  Bookstores and libraries are among the first resources I locate when I move to a new place.

Nothing can replace the texture, weight, smell, and mystery of a book, preferably hardbound.  Reading is the last thing I do at night before turning off the lights for sleep ~ novels, history, biography, science, aviation.  It relaxes me while engaging my imagination.  And no batteries are required.


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