Interesting… When I started this series last week, talking about how things have changed in “breaking in” for our field, more than half the comments went to how bookstores have changed. So, here I am, following the Great Big Clue about what this week’s topic should be… So, let’s look at how things differ from 1998, when I started circulating my novel manuscripts hoping for professional publication, and today.
THEN: There was numerous chains of bookstores, most of which had “regular store” size space in shopping malls (rather than superstores.) I had a B.Dalton in the mall across the street from my house; within 10 miles, I could find numerous other B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Brentano’s, Barnes & Noble, and Borders stores. In addition, there were several dozen independent bookstores in a 10-mile radius. Some, like the 5-store local chain Olsson’s, focused on literature; others focused on special topics like politics (I live near Washington, D.C.), art and art history, children’s books, and science. There were also numerous used bookstores, including one that specialized in speculative fiction. (D.C. never had a new-book spec fic independent.)
Of all the stores around me, I had a distinct preference for one of the two Borders stores in the area. It was *huge* (by then-standards; about half the size of a contemporary pad-based B&N store today). It had the broadest variety of books I had ever seen in one place (with the exception of my university bookstore, which had variety, but not a lot of fiction.) It had staff members who knew their stock, who could actively discuss the books they had on offer, especially the books on the vast number of “specials” tables, where books of certain similar characteristics were grouped. At some point in the late 90’s that Borders store added a cafe, and I spent many hours browsing books, sipping tea, and hanging out in the store. (Tangentially, the store was in the outer suburbs and was just down the road from a Container Store, and the Borders staff and I frequently mused about the common customer base between those two “specialty” stores — books and containers.)
While Amazon existed, I had not yet purchased a book there. Amazon offered almost exclusively new books; they had no used books for sale, and they only sold “stuff” that was related to books (reading lights, stationery, etc.) There was a handful of other booksellers online, including growing used book sites, but neither Barnes & Noble nor Borders had an online presence.
NOW: The only chain stores within 10 miles are Barnes & Noble superstores; we have about half of those, from our peak about five years ago. (There might be a single Books-a-Million in town; I haven’t been by its location in a couple of years, but the last time I was there, it was a tiny outpost, below ground level, mostly selling discount books.) Each B&N store offers books for sale in about two thirds of its floor space; the rest is devoted to selling Nooks, coffee, toys, and stationery.
The vast majority of the independents that existed in 1998 are gone — the entire Olsson’s chain, most of the other specialty stores. We still have one specialty store for literature (in a trendy part of town; half the store’s footprint is a restaurant (not just a cafe)), and the specialty store for science-related books survived. All other independents died, mostly in the last five years.
We have an emerging group of independent stores. Some are tiny; the one closest to my house has maybe 1000 square feet, and it sells wine and chocolate in addition to books. Another, at one end of a tourist district in a nearby suburb, specializes in children’s books, but they have a few shelves of adult books. They have some toys for sale, but they have no cafe.
Amazon, of course, is thriving online, selling books, but also every other consumer good a person could want, usually at steep discounts. B&N has an online presence (not as robust), and there are thousands of other places to buy books. Of course, many of those online book sales are electronic books.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? The vast majority of us who are book-lovers mourn the loss of our bricks-and-mortar bookstores. We miss browsing through books, often shelves and shelves and shelves of them in the genres we love. We miss bookstore cats (where they existed) and cafes where we could visit with friends or read potential purchases (as opposed to fight for space among the students who set up permanent shop, at least at *our* B&N cafes these days.) We miss the feeling of *discovery* that stores used to have.
And yet, it’s not a *complete* loss. With online vendors, we can get books any time of the day or night, delivered directly to us (if we read electronically), without any delay. The vast majority of the books that we buy are deeply discounted from the (very steep) cover price. If we read genre, there are thousands of inexpensive books flooding the market, keeping our to-be-read shelves endlessly, inexpensively filled. (Yeah, these are all advantages for readers — we’ll talk later about how this immediacy and discounting affects writers. That’s a whole separate post.) We no longer need to worry about whether a book (e.g., CHRISTMAS STOCKING KNITTING PATTERNS) is in season and in stock; it always is.
(Just as an aside: My favorite bricks-and-mortar bookstore memory? Not my first reading, where I was surrounded by family and friends. Not any one of the hundreds of times I discovered amazing new-to-me books by browsing. Rather, the paired memories of my first date with my husband — in a Borders, where the flute quintet playing in the cafe was so loud that we retreated to the tech books section to drink our coffee — and the night my husband proposed to me — back in the same Borders in front of the same tech books!)
So — does my experience reflect your own? Do you agree or disagree with my summary? What other changes have you seen in the past 15 years?