Closing Too Soon
I just found a used bookstore for sale via the internet. In the listing, the current owner writes, “Looking for a new owner who knows people read something other than the Kindle.”
I’ve seen a few bookstores liquidating inventory, listing their store for sale on eBay, and simply closing up shop. My immediate thought isn’t, “Boy, it’s a shame the market shut them down” or “I guess the e-readers drove them out of business.” My response is, “They closed too soon!” I know of one former bookseller who closed his shop after 6 months of poor sales. I tried to make suggestions about things he could improve, but he had already “checked out” from bookselling. He was discouraged because another local used bookshop was closing down at the same time. I told him that he’d be the only game in town, things would get better, and to think about the years of positive cash flow he had. “Stay in there” is easy to say when you’re running successful shops. With 5 stores, I can have a slow quarter at one location as long as other locations are staying strong. There are many advantages to owning a multi-store chain. However, I do think that the solo independent bookstore, new or used, can make it nowadays. These booksellers need to stick it out, fight the good fight, and let this fad called “e-reading” subside.
When will we, as booksellers, give up? I hope the answer is, “never.” I don’t know about you, but I sincerely think that the e-reader revolution is a fad. I think that, unless you’re a traveler, the e-reader-revolution will end abruptly for you. I think people will realize very soon that being able to carry 100 books on one device, yes, is nice, but who needs to carry 100 books at a time? What about the bragging rights you get from sitting in a public place reading a good book? Unless I peek over a Kindle owner’s shoulder, I have no idea which book they are currently browsing. I might make quick judgments about the reader… the large man with a baseball cap is reading a fishing magazine or the young woman with cropped hair is reading a style guide or the man in a business suit is reading Good to Great. I like having people judge me by the books I’m reading! I like showing them that I love Steinbeck or C.S. Lewis or the latest book about bookselling. Why must we close ourselves off from the world by denying ourselves the expression we have through showing off our latest book pick?
I just don’t see the e-reader longevity. It’s been said that the “truth will always win.” In a sense, I think the printed book is the purest, truest form of literature’s dissemination. I think it will come roaring back, although I don’t want to count the book altogether dead. It’s far from that.
My hope is that young people can learn how to read from the printed page rather than a light-up screen.
So, my answer to when we will give up bookselling is simple: “Why would we stop?” For the used bookseller in particular, we have our own set of advantages. New books are getting higher and higher in price. Yet, with the margins the used bookseller maintains, we can keep our prices for secondhand books relatively flat. Yes, I think there will still be a place for new bookstores in the next 10 years, but I think the competitive advantage is with used bookstores. New bookstores like Barnes & Noble can’t prevent the price hikes for new literature. They will need to adapt somehow. On the other hand, I think used bookstores can weather almost any storm. They can fare well during peak book years and lean. With my 5 stores, we’ve seen that to be true. I’m encouraged when I think about the future for printed books… essentially, we can only go up from here! Take heart!