What Killed the Big Bookstores?

[Image courtesy istock]

Some say the e-book revolution did brick-and-mortar stores in, but I recently read a fascinating interview that points in another direction: to the bookstore companies themselves.

Notice I wrote “bookstore companies” rather than “booksellers” or “bookstores.” “Bookstore companies” is something that — as far as I know — I made up so I can refer to those big conglomerates that were snapping up little local bookshops many years ago. By the way, didn’t Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks try to recapture the “Sleepless in Seattle” magic with another romcom that dropped her into a small independent bookstore while he was part of a huge bookstore company? What was the name of that movie, anyway? I guess the movie was about as successful as the giant effort to swallow up small bookstores was because those big shops ended up floundering, too.

Sure, Amazon and e-books sure made a huge dent in bookstore sales. But anybody who loves books loves a great local bookstore as much — if not more — than a local library (all those books! Everywhere!). Especially if they stock local titles, bring in writers to do readings and sign books, offer a place for book clubs (or even chess clubs or other groups) to meet….

Yes, a great local bookstore is a community gathering spot. It’s a place where the employees (usually the owner is behind the counter) can make quick and spot-on recommendations. Things Amazon certainly can’t replicate, no matter how they try.

Which is why so many good, independent bookstores can still fling their doors open to us, despite the prevalence of e-books and online book shopping.

Some of us remember the days when you couldn’t walt through a mall without seeing either a B. Dalton, a Waldenbooks, or a Crown Book store. All gone now. Hastings, Coles, Borders and many others have likewise vanished.

In an interview Jonathan Simons (editor of Analog Sea Review) conducted with Robert Topping (founder of Topping & Company Booksellers in Edinburgh, Scotland), Topping gives his take on why he thinks so many bookstore companies fell by the wayside.

In a nutshell, he says it boils down to algorithms. “The theory was if you could measure what was selling and what wasn’t,” Topping says, “you could get rid of all the books that weren’t selling, get more in of what was selling, and grow strong and stronger as a bookshop. But as you kept weeding out all the books that sold infrequently, you made your stock less interesting, more anodyne and bland, and eventually lost reader support. So, it was a self-fulfilling thing that was destroying their bookshops.”

Amazon uses algorithms to give you recommendations, but if you’re like me, your reading habits cover a pretty broad range of topics. I’m not sure Amazon knows what to recommend for me because whacky stuff I’d never read in a million years shows up. Half a dozen or so times I’ve followed a “Recommended for you” link, but I’ve purchased even fewer of those recommendations.

We travel many of the same places now, and I’m glad I’ve found a couple of independent bookstores in those towns, places I visit a few times during the time we’re in the area. I have hundreds of e-books on my Kindle now, and precious little space in our RV of less than 200-square-feet, but I still find a few things to purchase.

In these shops I find local writers, books about regional history or politics or memoirs. Sometimes I find writing-related items I can’t resist. And bookmarks. Always necessary when reading a print book! Some stores even include local crafts which I have to browse and where my husband often finds unique earrings for me.

But browsing in person is always better than browsing books online. Getting a feel for the narrative by leafing through a book, randomly stopping here or there, is the best way I’ve found to make that final decision about whether to purchase the book or not. A few early chapters previewed online just isn’t the same thing.

Sometimes I think I missed my calling not owning or managing a bookstore (I came close once, but that’s another story), but the older me says I wouldn’t have been very good at it: I like what I like, and once I open a book it takes a lot to get me to put it down. Book buyers would give up on trying to get my attention, I think, if I were behind that counter, and they’d wear a path to the door.

I do love that I can contribute in my small way to these independent bookstores, and hope all of you wear a path to the front door of your closest independent bookstore. Make a purchase. Thank the person behind the counter. Don’t see what you hope to find? Ask. Be a part of the non-algorithmic, book-buying equation.

PS: If you looked for the Analog Sea Review online and couldn’t find it, that’s as it should be. “Advocating for the human right to disconnect, we celebrate offline culture and work artists create in solitude….” and “as an offline publisher, we value human contact and insist on trading our editions exclusively through the local bookstores we love and support.” They have a tiny space on one Web page with their contact information: https://www.analogsea.com/

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑