The problems surrounding Barnes & Noble, and so many other bookstores around the country, started me thinking. Yes, that's dangerous. You never know what will happen when my brain strains and begins trying to work. If you wan, you can blame Chris K because his comment to yesterday's post is what started me down this track. Still, you guys can come out of your bunkers. You're safe -- at least as long as you aren't buyers for the big box bookstores or the corporate suits that run them.
Let me start by saying I love bookstores. I grew up with a wonderful locally owned bookstore that took much more of my money as a teen and twenty-something than any other store in the area. This bookstore, sandwiched into a small store front next to a grocery store, still managed to have just about any book you could want. Why? Because the owners listened to their customers and ordered to meet demands. There were magazines of local interest. Non-fiction books of all sorts. Fiction was well represented and, miracle of miracle, there was a wonderful selection of science fiction and fantasy that highlighted not only the "masters" but the up-and-coming authors of the 70's and 80's as well. There was no coffee bar. If you wanted to sit, you found a place on the floor. But no one minded. This was a place to come and find a book, maybe spend a few minutes to talk with the owners. It was also a place to meet authors because the owners knew how important it was to build relationships between the readers and the authors they liked. In short, the owners knew their client base and knew how to market to them.
Fast forward now 2o some years. National news carried the story of the largest independent bookstore to open in years. That store, located in Dallas, came in with great plans and did wonderful promotions. But, unfortunately, it didn't last. The downswing in the economy didn't help. Neither did a location that didn't bring in the foot traffic a bookstore needs. Fortunately, the owners aren't giving up. They will be reopening under a new name and in a much better location after the first of the year. Why? Because there is a demand for a bookstore that pays attention to what local readers want.
So what makes these stores different from the big box stores? That's easy, really. It's the same thing that makes locally run libraries different from those that have been outsourced (Yes, there are libraries that have been outsourced. It is something we faced the potential of in my hometown. The selling point -- it would be just like Walmart). Now, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Walmart. The issue really is that bookstores, like libraries, should reflect the community they are in. That becomes a problem when you have purchases controlled from a central office. That problem only increases when that same office tells you to pull books from the shelves if they aren't selling well enough across the country. It doesn't matter if they are still selling well in your store.
I remember when the first Barnes & Noble opened in my area. Like so many others, I was thrilled. Why? Because of the sheer number of books offered. Yeah, I liked the idea of having a coffee shop there. But then, if I'm addicted to anything, it's coffee and books. So there was finally a place where I could fee both my habits. Back then, there weren't big box stores on every corner. The next closest B&N or Borders was almost 20 miles away. Yes, there were B. Dalton and Waldenbooks stores in the malls. But those never really counted -- at least not as "local" bookstores.
So, what's changed? Well, the market has been saturated, at least down here, between B&N and Borders. Every mall -- and, man, do we have malls -- has one or the other major bookseller in them. Then there are others, located in shopping centers throughout the metroplex. There are 20 B&N stores in a 50 mile radius of my home. There are 25 Borders. As a reader, that should thrill me. But it doesn't. Why? Because I won't find any major difference between any of them. The books will be the same. Oh, one store might have more copies of one book than another, but there won't be any major stock differences. Worse -- and this is especially true of Borders -- the amount of stock (books) has been drastically decreased over the last year or so. There are toys and gifts and all sorts of gee gaws. But books? Not so much. And certainly not if you're looking for something that isn't a best seller.
They'd have us believe people aren't reading as much as before. If that was the case, the circulation numbers of libraries would be going down. I don't know about the rest of the country but here, numbers are increasing with every year that passes. When you ask library patrons why they are using the library, they often say it's because they can't afford to pay the price of books these days. So they borrow that new hard cover from the library to see if they like it. If they do, they might, MIGHT, go out to buy it. More than likely, if they do, they order it from Amazon for a discount, or buy it at a used bookstore, or -- gasp -- buy it from a used bookstore.
What's the solution? I'm not sure, but it has to happen industry-wide. Publishers have to find a happy medium between the outrageous prices for hard covers they want and what the pubic is willing to pay. Bookstores have to go back to their roots. In this case, the readers. They need to go to regional purchasing so they can take the greatest advantage of their customer base. They need to downsize -- both in the size of their stores and in the numbers. When you saturate a market and there is no competition in pricing between you and "that other chain", people will look for other alternatives -- Amazon, the local library, used bookstores. Most of all, as readers, and as purchasers, we need to vote with our wallets. That is the only language the corporate suits seem to understand, and that not always well.
What do you see as the issues facing these stores today? Any thoughts on how they might survive? And how do we, as writers, survive the fall-out in the meantime?