Everyone says it is so sad that bookstores close, that independently-owned bookstores close. Why do they close? People blame Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or people who don’t read. Bookstores do not close for these reasons. There have always been competitors, and people who choose not to read. Bookstores close for many reasons, mostly having to do with profitability. The product is low margin, and even with the aid of a brisk returns system, the local bookseller cannot set their own price on the product, really. The profit margins are just too tight. The amount of stock on the shelf is very high. The establishment has to maintain that stock, pay taxes on it, track it, deal with theft, damage, and other forms of shrink. Without higher profit margins, nobody comes out ahead. And, where would the margin come from? Everyone is getting squeezed, these days. The publishers are moving hard towards digital, where heavy readers can consume text as if they were webpages. The distributors are locked in a death grip with their warehousing and shipping partners, where margins are always tight and the price of petrol makes everything crazy. The actual bookstore must handle all the usual suspects of retail – location, customer service, shrink – while maintaining profit on a product where just to put it on the shelf – not even counting the cost of staff and electricity and credit card processing – the profit will be about 30-35% at best. Without high volume, it is not feasible, as a business. It is a luxury good for an educated population. In regions with robust literacy, with disposable income, and with a dense enough population, it is possible if rents remain low. Yet, all of those factors contribute to high rents, no? Wealthy, educated, dense populations tend to be high rent.
Ergo, it is a systemic shift. That few bookstores will cling on to life are nothing if not outliers of a larger system, each carving a unique niche. Systemically speaking, I don’t see how it is possible to run a profitable business as a bookstore over the next twenty years. I suspect we will see a high rate of decline in all booksellers, all over the world.
I don’t think anyone is to blame. I think framing the discussion that way, as I see all the time, is a mistake. Instead of mourning what we have lost, and seeking blame, what do we build instead?
The independent bookstore provided a unique hub for a community’s intellectual growth, a backdrop of the imagination of that town or city, and a place where people “felt” like brilliance and wonder and knowledge was waiting on the shelf to be acquired, and inserted into a brain. It was the kind of place to linger on a Sunday afternoon, a place of peace and ideation. The thing most webstores have not succeeded at creating is a sense of community. They are often as soulless as a search button, with no one waiting on hand to offer personalized recommendations, and no one and nothing really providing a sense of space on the site, a place of discussion, a place to meet people, a place to be and to be proud of being.
Build me a better bookstore, internet. Build me that communal space, that brilliant space.