The Real Reason Bookstores Are Becoming Extinct

Growing up in South Florida in the 70s and 80s, there was a great bookstore at the corner of US1 and Sunrise Blvd. in Ft. Lauderdale called “All Books and Records.” Though it’s been gone for probably a decade now, I still can picture the inside. With what had to be at least 20,000 square feet, the store was split in two parts: If you went to the right you could lose yourself in vinyl (and eventually CD’s) of every genre, while if you went to the left, you were immediately immersed in shelves of books as far as the eye could see.

Even though it’s been at least 15 years since I’ve been there, I can remember the musty smell, exactly where the mystery books were, the somewhat nerdy but oh-so-knowledgeable employees and even my most treasured purchase: A first edition of Sue Grafton’s “A is for Alibi.” So many of the books that line my shelves have that store’s specific price tag and I smile each time I open one and see it. The store is gone, but the memories are still strong. Ironic, because in the grand scheme of things it was just a store. Not a person, event or even the setting of an event or milestone. It was just a store, in a neighborhood I didn’t frequent that often, and yet it was so much more.

The Times They Are A-changing–A Lot

These days, my Kindle goes with me anywhere that I might have time to read: a plane, the doctor’s office, the couch on a lazy afternoon. It holds hundreds of my precious books and I rarely set foot in a book store. Part of the reason is that there’s no need–I can buy almost anything I want or need online and have it within seconds downloaded to my Kindle. Why waste time, gas and energy actually driving somewhere and then buying a book that’s going to take up space that’s already overflowing with printed books that I can’t seem to part with.

There are always exceptions, of course, but they are fewer and farther between than ever. We have almost every Stephen King book ever printed, in hard cover if it’s available, and every single Sue Grafton in her Alphabet Series. They line shelves and we will continue to add to them as they come out or we die–whichever comes first. There are a handful of friends who have been published, or books that have been autographed, and those remain as well. Other than that, however, unless it’s free or extremely collectible (i.e., worth money), I’m not buying printed books. They’re heavy, require dusting and take up more space than I have.

Some Nitty-Gritty

Here in the suburbs of Atlanta, there are a handful of used book stores, but they aren’t what they used to be and although I don’t know how profitable they are, there certainly aren’t a lot of them. Books for Less, in Buford near the Mall of Georgia, which is a heavily populated shopping area, is a nice store. It’s attached to a coffee shop, there’s a large selection, and it’s a decent place to while away a few hours. You can trade in your old books and then use credit on some things, but not others, and you can’t get anything for free. If you have $10 in credit, and a used book is marked at $5, you can only use $2.50 in credit–the rest has to be cash. This appears to be the norm anymore, and while it’s certainly better than having 2500 books sitting in piles on your living room, it’s still not as quick, easy or orderly as e-books.

Books for Less in Buford, GA
Books for Less in Buford, GA

The price points are not really the issue. There are lists upon lists, every single day, that arrive in my email with offers of free or discounted e-books. They use this tactic particularly for series so that you get hooked for “free” and then are “forced” to buy the sequel. Essentially, getting one out of four or five for free is the same as buying them used at a bookstore like Books for Less. The big difference is the fact that they are stored “electronically” and don’t take up any room. I don’t have to move them, and when I go on vacation, I can bring 500 versus two or three. That’s really what it comes down to.

A Farewell to Brick and Mortar Bookstores?

While some are still fighting it for all they’re worth, it’s becoming clear that people are going the way of e-books. Even a dedicated collector and enthusiast like myself is buying more and more electronic books and paring down what we call the “library,” which is the room in our house that should technically be the formal living room. It’s the same with the 700+ CD’s that we own. iTunes and MP3’s are simply so much easier to store and far more mobile. The cost is comparable to buying the physical CD, if not slightly cheaper because if there are songs you don’t like on an album, you don’t have to buy them.

So while the nostalgia involved in printed books is everlasting and will always hold a place in my heart, it’s kind of like saying you’re not going to use the television remote because your favorite show of all time was on the air before the remote control device was invented. Like it or not, technology is here to stay and while the big book sellers like Barnes & Noble are hanging on, the end is undoubtedly near for most brick and mortar bookstores. Some of the older generation are holding on to their print books and continuing to buy them, but they are becoming fewer and fewer.

Once this generation is gone, it’s inevitable that print books will be rare and probably only special editions. While it might be sad in some ways, change is inevitable and this is just the next step. Less paper, less ink, less clutter–same price and sometimes even cheaper. To be honest, technology doesn’t sound all that bad.

14 thoughts on “The Real Reason Bookstores Are Becoming Extinct”

  1. I’ve been saying this for several years now. The E-book is going to put the traditional bookstore out of business. I owned a bookstore for 20 years – made a very good living but I was happy and felt lucky to sell the store two years ago after watching the sales start to slide.

    E-Books aren’t a bad thing – they’re just the next thing. Every business changes, we have to be smart enough to see the change coming and figure out a new angle.

  2. You rarely set foot in a bookstore? A dedicated collector and enthusiast? No. A dedicated reader – yes. Collector and enthusiast – no. Sit home and download 500 e-books for “cheap or free” in your undies, or put on some pants, step into an indie store, breathe some book air, talk to actual people about life and books and whatnot and support your local businesses.

    I’d be happy to have you whether you buy anything or not. You’d have fun talking my mystery/thriller regulars.

  3. I feel as though you probably wrote this just to provoke, though there are valid points: printed books WILL disappear as a normal format – much like LP’s are now – but this will be less to do with consumer preference than with Amazon’s strategy. And like compressed MP3’s, the value and quality of e-books is less than a tangible object. By the way, you as the purchaser do not own those e-books, you are “leasing” them, and they can be deleted at any time. I agree with your assertion that the holdout on printed books will erode with the passing of traditional readers. But the real change will occur when e-books are no longer just a digital representation of paper, but more of a Wikipedia with hyperlinks to accommodate the 140-character and video game action preferences of the current ADHD generation – and in fact, such “books” will offer much more than static print ever could. Of course, the cost won’t continue to be that of a cheap paperback: you can fully expect that an Amazon monopoly will charge you as much, or more, than a hardcover first edition would have. Shame.

  4. It’s a sad story, but not just because someone apparently dependent on Kindle uses the word “ironic” in apparently lamenting the passing of the very bookstores that would have stocked the very books she claims to miss (in a nostalgic, not material way), but also because it’s filled with so many errors of punctuation, grammar, and syntax. I can’t help but wonder out loud whether the two are related. Can one really “collect” while one is jettisoning books and while also downloading hundreds of titles (not books)? Uh, no. Please, step back a bit, go upstream a bit and think about what you claim to be arguing.

  5. Judy’s right. We just did a survey in connection with ARCs for a new book. The results suggest that, even for those who prefer print to ebooks, the overwhelming majority of readers have turned to online retailers for all or some of their book buying. Personally, unless it’s a highly visual book, I always choose ebooks for my personal reading. Ironically, I have shelves of books I couldn’t live without but will admit I rarely open – it’s as if they’ve become cultural wallpaper. It’s odd and more than a little sad.

  6. The two thoughts that keep me going when faced with nay-sayers:

    “Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.” – Author Joe Queenan

    “Cars aren’t free, neither are apartments or food. We live in a free market economy. Yes, books are important and play a unique role in the culture. But that doesn’t mean they have to be free. Or cheap.” – Albert N. Greco, a professor at Fordham University and author of “The Book Publishing Industry.

    The article says: “Why waste time, gas and energy actually driving somewhere and then buying a book…” Well, the gas part can only be excused because America is a car-culture (other countries rely upon mass transit much more), but the TIME and ENERGY that you will WASTE?? going somewhere to buy a book? That baffles me. How are either of those things wasted?

    Perhaps the biggest thing that bothers me about the e-book culture is that we won’t be able to make contact with each other over a book anymore. Nobody can see what anybody else is reading on their e-reader of choice. There will be no – “Hey, how are you liking that book?” “Excuse me, is that the new ________?” Or what about when you notice someone reading the same book that you are reading and you make a little connection – just friendly – just human, non-social media contact?

    As for the “Less paper, less ink, less clutter” part, tell that to the landfills. Paper and ink are biodegradable . Those e-readers, tablets and smartphones are toxic – yes, even though you do trade them in most of the time for “recycling.” I’d rather breathe the fumes from burning books than burning e-readers. I can use an old catalog in the outhouse. Try that with your Kindle.

  7. Having had six bookshops myself and a veteran of the book biz for 33 years I could add a lot to this but one fact usually missing from such discussions is that all e-book companies record every thing you do with the e-book, how long you linger of a page, how fast you read, what you read, i.e. all your reading habits that they can document. Do you like that? Will it scare you off from reading radical or unorthodox books? E-books consolidate every minute date point and add it to your database and market that.

    • Good heavens, man. I never even thought of that. I don’t have any e-books and wouldn’t care if everyone knew what I read, but this is a HUGE issue – the privacy thing. If I had to fill out some sort of marketing thing at the check-out counter for every paperback or hardcover that I bought, I’d never buy a book again. To quote the title of a rather good book: “Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading.” Get out of my head and mind your own business. Thanks, Todd.

  8. As the owner of a used bookshop, this is the saddest thing I’ve ever read. We are definitely struggling, as I’m sure many bookstores are. We have to do a mix of online and offline sales. We have to be creative. We have to do special events like story times, summer concerts, book clubs, author signings, etc. It isn’t enough just to have books on shelves. But based on the number of young people coming in the store who want to buy real books, and the little children whose parents bring them into buy real physical books, I don’t think that the printed medium will die out any time soon.

    • I’m with you, Alyssa.

      People have been shouting about the fall of books for decades… and it hasn’t happened. I have done nothing in the line of pleasure reading for the last 5 months but read “books about books” and the amount of times that I’ve read about the oncoming decline of the book is enormous… but it hasn’t happened. The town crier has gone hoarse from all of his ill-fated attempts at predicting the future.

      The internet, and e-books, are housed in a placed that is not a “place” – a village where we can’t really meet. Bookstores are ACTUAL places where ACTUAL books bring ACTUAL people together to ACTUALLY meet. That will never die.

  9. I had to stop back in with a little information that I literally just ran across on ye olde internet:

    Dated 1952, Adolph Kroch, printed by the American Book-Stratford Press, a 67 page long article titled:

    “Bookstores Can Be Saved”

    Just to make the point that the cry of the dying bookstore has been going on for a l-o-n-g time.

    Keep on, town crier. It’s falling on my deaf ears. The book (and the bookstore) is here to stay.

  10. Really? The author is worried about paper waste and trees but not about electronic waste, which is far worst? Electronic waste stems from all those tablets and electronic reading gadgets that get thrown away or “recycled” once they are no longer desired or operable. That sort of waste is toxic and a BIG problem nowadays, a much larger problem than paper waste which is actually biodegradable. Also, wasting the energy to go to a bookstore? Wow. I don’t understand that attitude at all.

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