Presently, independent booksellers are growing. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookstores in the US has grown from 1,410 in 2010 to 1,712 in 2015. At the same time, the future of highly-capitalized chains, with their need for expensive, high-traffic locations seems uncertain. Barnes & Noble shrunk from 726 stores at the beginning of 2009, to just 640 stores in survival today.
Bookstores of the future may have to get more innovative with technology, which makes book shopping easier while expanding choices. New York City’s Shakespeare & Co., on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has seen some success by reducing the amount of space used for book displays and adding a café as well as the Espresso Book Machine, a device that provides on-demand book printing. Time will tell if this New York bookseller is onto something.
The history of bookselling along 4th Ave., in lower Manhattan, is well documented in Mondolin & Meador’s Book Row (New York, Carroll & Graff, 2004). Most of the shops described in the book no longer exist, except for Shirley Solomon (Pageant) still operating on 4th St, and The Strand which was moved by Benjamin Bass’s son to its current location, on Broadway and 12th Street. The Book Row, for those not familiar with it, included 48 stores originally.
Across the Atlantic, deep into the Latin Quarter of Paris, another legendary bookstore from the 1920’s and 30’s, is George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company, which survived bombings, riots and other book shop closings. In the early days, the shop’s attractions included a slew of postwar writers, regulars, the store dog – Basketville and a menagerie of felines.
Today, booksellers have to mix the right ingredients in order to survive in the face of online sales and declining literacy. Bookstores such as the East West Books, Coliseum, The Oscar Wilde Bookshop, Partners and Crime of Greenwich Village, High Street book store of London, the 400 Borders stores, (of the once second largest US bookstore chain), and many more, have all been victims of this century’s new trends. Providing comfortable places for people to hang out with their lattes and laptops while previewing books that they may later purchase on Amazon, does not provide for a profitable business model. Attracting customers through regularly scheduled events such as children’s readings with favorite characters, book signings by authors accompanied by artistic or musical performances, wine tastings, and movie showings becomes unprofitable gradually. Yes, running an independent bookstore in an expensive city can drive costs through the roof.
Mega bookstores, with tablet-carrying staffers that are quick to search for inventory and take one’s order without a cash register, whether on-line or in-store, are perhaps more efficient, but not necessarily cost effective. Privacy concerns and spam blocking discourage modern day marketing techniques that distribute coupons via smartphones or emails. There is no substitute for a strong on-line presence through its own website, other on-line marketplaces and social media.
The most common ingredient to successful bookstores, which are centrally located in major cities, is the existence of multi square-footage space dedicated to rare book collections. Rare books do not compete with e-readers or electronic editions, and are, by nature very limited in supply. Depending on the variety and depth of a store’s rare book collection, the customers may keep on coming.
With gasoline prices at more reasonable levels and large parts of some economies out of the slump we experienced a few years back, booksellers and book collectors are finding it easier to justify the cost of traveling further distances to some regional book fair or avoid mid-town traffic to visit an old and rare book establishment in the country. In fact, for this coming Saturday, it does not even have to be old and rare. The Independent Bookstore Day returns April 30 with more than 400 participating stores offering a few specials for all types of book lovers. You may even find me there.