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.