Death of an Indie Bookstore

February 2, 2009 at 6:06 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 15 Comments

This weekend I went to Cloverdale to see my man Rocket Scientist.  My brother’s birthday is coming up, so I suggested we go to the town’s only bookstore to pick up a present for him.  RS wasn’t too thrilled, really, since we’d just walked to the library and back and it was already quarter past five.  But I have this crazy goal of walking a thousand miles this year, and I hadn’t reached my three-mile quota for the day yet, so I talked him into it.

We walked back downtown.  We stood in front of the storefront where we saw, instead of books, a martial arts studio.  We gaped for a minute.  We realized we’d walked by here half a dozen times, not realizing that the bookstore had gone out of business.  It had vaporized with no fanfare:  No clearance sales, no announcements, no nothing.  We had to shrug it off, as there are all sorts of empty storefronts in town now.

What happens when a bookstore goes out of business?  It seems to happen more quickly than when the same thing happens to a furniture store or video rental or the like.  I imagine what happens is that another book dealer comes and makes an estimate and hauls off the whole lot.

Anyway, what happened to this bookstore?

The first thing that happened is that it opened in a small town with a failing economy.  The bakery went out of business, and the coffee shop, and the fitness center, and the video store.  For whatever reason, in a resort area of quaint small towns, this one doesn’t seem able to draw in the tourist trade the way some of its neighbors have.  There we might be able to blame the economy in general.

The second thing is that this town might not have enough of a reading population to sustain a bookstore.  The population is only 8,100, and the median income is 20% lower than the state average.  I’m looking at census data that are blowing my mind:  Only 75% of residents age 25 or above have a high school diploma or higher, and only 16% have a bachelor’s degree.  So there you go.  Who is going to buy books?

Now, I’d been in the bookshop once.  It was really tiny and spotlessly clean.  There were no chairs, and barely enough room to walk from one aisle to the next.  Only new books were sold, plus the usual small selection of candles and greeting cards.  We didn’t buy anything.  (RS says he bought about ten books from her over time).

I don’t buy books.  Why don’t I buy books?  Well, I do sometimes, but typically as gifts.  I might spend $200 a year total.  Here’s the thing.  Last year, I kept track of all the books I read (409), and what I would have paid if I’d bought them all new on Amazon.  Not full cover price, mind you!  It would have cost me $5875.12.  That’s 15% of my gross income, or significantly more than I put away toward retirement.  It’s more than six months’ rent, even at the exhorbitant rates I pay.

Okay, why don’t you buy books?  Or do you?

If you buy (most) of the books you read, do you buy them new?  Where do you buy them?  Do you pay full price?

Do you acquire books from the library?  Hand-me-downs from other readers?  Advance Reader Copies?  Library book sales?  Used book stores?  Amazon.com?  Costco?  The supermarket?  The remainder table at Borders?

This is what I want to figure out.  I want to figure out what’s going on with declining book sales.  I’m having this ethical dilemma, because I’m starting to feel that my freeloading reading habits are akin to society “ladies” who “buy” formal gowns, wear them with the tags tucked in, and return them for a full refund.  Tacky, you know?

Well, I looked at Book Publishing News, and I found that, in 2007, e-books represented $3.4 million of sales of $29.93 billion.  Ugh, math is hard, let me call Rocket Scientist… he says it’s less than 1/100th of a percent. (0.000114).  “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘insignificant.'”  (That’s what I love about him – he doesn’t mince words).  So, presumably, e-books are not yet a major factor.

The publishing industry is trying to get a handle on this, too.  But I’ll tell you what.  People don’t buy books the way they buy other things.  For instance.  I pay my rent and utilities every month, and I pay for all my groceries and the food I eat dining out.  Yet I have been known to read sections of books at bookstores that I have no intention of buying.  Other forms of entertainment, say magazines, DVDs, or CDs, people seem to buy without quite so much sampling.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I’m not quite sure why this is.

Opinions?  I’m really curious as to people’s thoughts on this topic.

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