Then and Now — Bookstores


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?


17 comments to Then and Now — Bookstores

  • My fondest memory of a physical bookstore is the old used bookstore I haunted in Beaufort SC, when I was a teen. It’s thirty years gone now, but that was the place where I found Doc Savage (yep, huge fan!), Elric, Amber and so many more wonderful stories. And since they were used, I could afford them on my babysitting budget.

    I’m going to admit also loving Amazon. It’s fast, it’s cheaper, and I can shop in my bare feet. There’s no browsing and discovering treasures I didn’t know would be there, but finding a box full of books on my doorstep has a charm of its own. I hate that physical stores can’t compete in the same way and sometimes I wish they wouldn’t try. Been in a B&N lately? You can only find the books by going upstairs…the downstairs is food, toys, DVDs and book paraphernalia. I shouldn’t have to search through a bookstore to find the actual books. But I also know that people like getting everything in one place (thank you, Walmart) so the stores have to do what they can to keep the money coming in.

  • “Booooookstooooores,” she moaned. “All we have left are the ghosts of booooookstooooores.”

    Hey,gimme a break. It’s the day after Halloween, when I saw adults in costume in my favorite restaurant for lunch. It was cool.

    My local indie sells mostly used and very few new books. The new books they do carry are paranormal romance and urban fantasy. And they prominently display any writer’s books up front for months following a signing, working to hand sell them rather than send them back or strip them. They have no coffee bar (which I mourn) but they do have a cola machine and an ice-cream freezer where they keep all sorts of frozen confections. And the store is huge. Massive. Like an ol-time UK bookstore with rows and aisles and nooks and crannies. When I win the lottery (rolls eyes), I am going to buy that dang store and bring in couches and comfy chairs and a coffee bar. And hope the homeless don’t invade and make me wish I hadn’t.

    We do have a BAM in town, but it is not writer friendly. It is not reader friendly. It is junk / kitschy friendly, with all sorts of crappy stuff on the tables and aisles. I haven’t been in there for years. The next closest book store is in South Charlotte, a good 20 miles away. So. I miss bookstores. To keep the indo here happy, I order books from them, even my own (at a very good discount for in-quantity orders). That way I don’t pay shipping and the sales count toward my royalties and numbers. No book store offered me such a good deal in the past.

    So, for me, in this tiny town, there are good and bad results of the bookstore-crash. But I mourn the loss of the Walden’s. I really mourn it.

  • Ken

    Bookstore memories. I remember the very first time I walked into a non-chain bookstore. It was in East-Lansing MI and when I walked in the door I got hit with the “Old Book” smell of the place, which, to this day, remains one of my favorite smells…moreso even than coffee.

    I remember a time, just before graduating from high school, I was standing in a Waldenbooks looking over the cover of “Patriot Games” by Tom Clancy, when an old woman asked me out of nowhere if I was going to buy that book. I said no because I didn’t have the money (This was a hardcover and was priced at just under $20…how far back does that take you all :)). She handed me a twenty, saying that it was good that a person of my age was interested in reading. I still have that book.

    I find Amazon to be useful at times and I’ve even managed to stumble across something that I wasn’t aware that I was looking for, but it’s not the same as walking through one of those bookstores.

  • Even though I sell my books only as ebooks (for now, anyway) I still love bookstores. But I can kind of see the inevitability of them not being able to compete with a warehouse. Think about it! Unlike furniture stores or appliance stores, which carry items that are comparable (a GE fridge versus an LG fridge) and finite, there are millions of book titles, and people often want a specific title. The bookstore owner has to pretty much guess which books people will walk through the door and ask for. The movie YOU’VE GOT MAIL illustrated how hard it was for an indie bookstore to compete with a big chain, but the chains can’t compete with online, either. Mike Shatzkin’s post on vendor-managed inventory describes the difficulties inherent in selling books from brick-and-mortar stores using a specific bookstore’s sales:

    Consider this data provided by a friend who owns a pretty substantial bookstore.

    Looking at the store’s records for a month, 65% of the units sold were singles: one copy of a title. Only 35% were of books that sold 2 or more. (I didn’t ask the question, but that would suggest that 80-90 percent of the titles that sold any copies sold only one.)

    Then, the following month, once again 65% of the units sold were singles. But only 20-30 percent of them were the same books as had sold as singles the prior month. Upwards of 70% of them were different titles. And upwards of 70% of the ones that sold one the prior month didn’t sell at all.

    To further underscore how slowly book inventory moves, another report they do shows that more than 80% of the titles in the store do not sell a single copy in any particular month. So it is no surprise that an analysis of books from a major publisher that promotes heavily showed that more than half the new titles they receive from that publisher don’t sell a single copy within a month of their arrival in the store, which would include the promotion around publication date!

    Those statistics rocked me! It’s kind of a miracle there are any bookstores left. Technology holds out some hope, however, in the form of “print on demand” (POD) technology. Right now they are too expensive for small stores but if they get cheap enough that a store could have half a dozen POD machines, people could ask for a book and have it printed in a matter of minutes.

    Here’s hoping, anyway!

  • I grew up in an upscale suburb of NYC that had an independent bookstore. I used to go there all the time to browse, to buy gifts, to sit in the stacks and read. And amazingly, that bookstore is still in existence. But it is one of the few exceptions to the rule. I miss Walden’s, too — more than I miss Borders, because for some reason Borders never used to stock my books. I am encouraged by the reemergence of indies. I fear Amazon more than I fear the NSA.

  • David, Amazon probably gives its info to the NSA…

  • Maybe it’s just me, but I cannot browse an online bookstore the same way I do a brick-and-mortar one. Online, I search for what I am looking for and get out; I cannot accidentally run across something I wasn’t deliberately looking for, and there is thus no sense of discovery. (The same is true, incidentally, of libraries. With the old 3-by-5 card catalogs, I would frequently run across something interesting while looking for what I thought I wanted. With a computer search, that simply doesn’t happen.)

    Sometimes, inefficiency is more rewarding.

  • Faith, you’re not kidding about the BAM here being writer-unfriendly. When “Mad Kestrel” first came out, they had none at all. I was working in the middle school at the time, so some of my students called and hounded the store until they finally stocked the book. After my kids told me they’d seen copies there, I went over and sure enough, there were two copies on the shelf. I found the manager, introduced myself and offered to sign them. She said, “No, people won’t buy books that are written in.”


  • I agree with Wolf about the felicity of browsing. There is still serendipity in database searches, but it’s different and harder to manage. I like Amazon as a holding pen for books I want to read, but am afraid I’ll forget. I’ll hear a new title or author and think “I should get that book” but if I don’t quickly go to Amazon and put a copy in my cart for storage, I might well forget.

    What I really miss are used bookstores. I’m used to living in college towns where the used stores are eclectic, laid back and the books are double shelved. I once found a tattered copy of Klaeber’s _Beowulf_ for 5 bucks at a local used store when my classmates were buying the same thing or more recent editions for $50 from online sources. I actually offered to pay the owner more, but she laughed and wrote up my receipt. There is a paperback only used store not too far from where I live now, but it’s owner burns scented candles all the time and I can’t spend more than 5 minutes in there without having an asthma attack. The Pasadena area still has independent bookstores, but they aren’t within “drop in and browse” distance, more “make a special pilgrimage” distance.

  • Ah, someone else who hates the newfangled computerized library card catalog… yeah, the near-miss is very often what we really wanted, not the exact search result. 🙁

  • mudepoz

    I grew up in a library. Almost literally. Boxes of books would appear at our house, there were racks and spinners and dumpins in the basement. My first job was as a stripper, at 6 I stripped the tops off of PB at the then new concept of convenience stores. It was a big deal to go to Krochs and Bretanos. Our vacations were based on problems with allotments.

    The life of a kid whose father was in publishing. I miss just going to a shelf and picking out a new book, or getting a box full.

    Now I miss going to brick and mortar stores. Actually, most were clapboard, but that’s besides the point.

    We do have some amazing 2nd hand bookstores here. Renaissance is wonderful. My father hated the fact that a USED bookstore was representing Milwaukee at our airport, but I love it. ABE makes my heart sing, since I can find incredibly rare volumes there.
    What’s going to happen to things like my 1700’s botanicals or my 19th century dog book?

    It’s harder to go online and pick out books. You need to find a blogger with the same interests and the same taste. Or have a really diverse group of friends to share with. RT was great, but it’s expensive, and not easy for the average person to get to.

    The eBook thing is great in so many ways. Much more selection, as indies bring out their books. Much more schlock as indies bring out their books.

  • Vyton

    In your post last week, I wrote about the great bookstore that was in Atlanta when we moved here in ’88: Oxford Books. They had Oxford II in an old house. Both were fantastic, and they are both gone. Atlanta still has some great used book stores: mostly paperback to mostly hard cover.

  • I miss stores like Waldenbooks more for their selection of genre magazines! I loved going to our local store and finding the latest issue of MZB’s Fantasy or Analog, or Weird Tales, or F&SF, or Deathrealm, or Galaxy…

    Along with the demise of the bookstores, so to have gone so many of the great old magazines!

  • Razziecat

    I do miss bookstores. I found so many of my favorite books at Waldenbooks. I used to love walking in there and taking a deep, deep breath. There’s no smell so exciting as the smell of new books! When I traveled to other cities, one of the first things I would look for was a bookstore. I still remember planning a special trip to Foyle’s when I visited London in 1982 😀
    I do shop on Amazon and Powell’s now (as well as Alibris for used books) because there are few bookstores on bus routes here (I don’t drive). There’s a small coffee shop in town with a bookstore attached; I can’t stop for coffee there without investigating the bookstore. And there are several used book stores in town. The library, sadly, is not funded like it used to be, although I still like to go there and see what’s new.

  • I’m lucky to live in a college town where we still have bookstores even after the three Borders stores and two used bookstores closed in the last few years. We have a mystery bookshop that sells new and used books, one fairly large independent, two brand-new independents that are really small, and 3 used bookstores. Oh, and a big Barnes and Noble. The best thing of all for me is that several of these are within walking distance of my house. One of my favorite things in the world is to walk downtown and spend the day browsing through the bookstores. I try to spread my spending out because I want them all to stay in business! But I do shop on Amazon a good bit, too. And the weekly library book shop, where used paperbacks are 50 cents and hardbacks are $2. Honestly, I buy books everywhere I see them! It’s an addiction.

    Having said all of that, I really miss Borders. I mentioned last week that I worked for Borders for a long time and I stayed a loyal customer after I left. For many years that was such a great place to work and the stores were such great places to shop. Even after all this time, my heart still aches a bit when I remember that the stores no longer exist.

  • quillet

    I have fond memories of an independent bookstore in my hometown. It was tiny, just a narrow two-level store inside an historic building, but the owner would order in anything for you. Chain bookstores killed it twenty years ago. I still miss the magical smell, the creaky floors, the old dark shelves with the shiny new books where you could browse for unexpected finds… It seemed to exist in a time warp, even then. I sometimes wish I could find that warp and step through!

    I do like the convenience of online book-shopping, sure. But Wolf’s right, you just can’t browse that way.

  • So many wonderful memories…

    I still have this dream of a bricks-and-mortar store functioning as a catalog store (intentionally, not by sad happenstance!) for online purchases. All the browse-ability would be there, along with the close study of covers and the smell of books, and the feel of pages… And then we could each go online and order — through the store — the format(s) we wanted.

    As for libraries — I’m another person who grew up with card catalogs, and learned how to skip through related books, using the cards. Now, I own a double catalog that was deaccessioned by my then-employer, and it’s my favorite piece of furniture. I’ve learned (as a professional librarian) how to use online catalogs to the same ends as cards, but I miss the fortuitous notations on some of those cards…