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?  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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  1. I’ve had a book buying problem for the last several years–ever since we paid off the mortgage and had some disposable income to play around with. New, hardback, used, I wanted them all. Most of the books bought locally were used, but I did make an effort to purchase new books from the chains on our side of town as well (no indies near me at all); more often than not the books I want are not shelved anywhere but in a warehouse. I’m on Amazon a good twenty million times a day.

    Now I have a stockpile of more than 500 yet-unread books around the house; I maketh myself sick. This year I’m attempting to buy very few books, but I do feel some guilt for changing my habits in a year when my book dollars will be so desperately needed. But then again, my husband works as a contractor for a bank, so his job could vanish at any time and we still have a kid in college. I might need my Amazon gift cards for beans instead of books before the year is out.

  2. I went for years without buying a new book because I couldn’t justify the cost. I checked out books from the library and bought books cheap from library book sales. I didn’t even buy from the local used bookstore because their prices are 50% of the cover price, and the books are usually in pretty bad condition. I figure if I’m going to spend that much I might as well pay a few dollars more and get a brand new copy from amazon where the discount is pretty good and the shipping is free if I buy a few books.

    Now I have so many review copies that I don’t need to buy books. But you want to know the ironic thing? I love my new review copies so much that I’ve gotten spoiled, and I’ve bought more new books in the past year than I have in the past ten years put together. I still check out books from the library, but I have pretty much given up on the used bookstore in our town and I feel kind of bad about that.

  3. I don’t buy many books, because I have too many already! Most books I read are from the library and then if I really really love one I’ll find a copy to add to my own shelf- but it usually comes from Paperback Swap, the Goodwill, library sales, or a used book store. I just know if I bought new books the money spent would be ridiculous. It would be nice to have them all new/hardbound but I can’t afford it so I buy them used and mostly trade paperbacks.

  4. Well, there we have it. It looks like most serious readers have the same habits – try to get books cheaply through any source other than paying full retail price at an independent bookstore. I can’t say I blame anybody, because I couldn’t support my habit that way even if I wanted to.

    Given this state of affairs, what is the publishing industry going to do about it?

  5. I get 99% of my books from Paperbackswap. I do get some at the library but I am likely to return them unread. I buy one or two new books a year. This makes me a bad reader I know, but I really dislike independent bookstores. I don’t like the selection and their are usually so full of themselves for being hip and indie. Gimmie a big B&N or Borders any day!

  6. (Sorry, wanted to subscribe to the comments, but forgot!)

  7. I guess I get to be the dissenting voice.

    I have always bought most of my books. I love the books themselves. I love them as objects. I especially love older books and love to see them lined up on the shelves.

    I almost always buy used but sometimes (like last year with my Everyman’s Library books) buy new via Amazon. I spent about $2000 last year on books (we live on a very tight budget but I hardly ever buy clothes or shoes, wear almost no makeup and cut my own hair).

    I buy in bookshops when I can but don’t drive much so the internet and are my friend.

    I re-read often so owning really makes sense.

    I give away books I don’t want/need anymore.

    All the walls in my house have books on them but I’m far from capacity even though our house is very small.

  8. Two grand! That’s impressive. I wonder, if we only included people who read all the books they buy, what the record expenditure on books in a year would be. We’d probably have to exclude textbooks, though, because we all know what those cost.

  9. Two grand is impressive but not in light of the fact that I never go to the movies or buy DVDs, never spend more than about $10 for an item of clothing (Yay consignment) and only have about four outfits for each season (warm and cold) in my closet. I spend zero on personal care products because I work the rebates system and books are the only home decor I buy. I don’t feel extravagant and we live on one income but it’s just a matter of priorities. I would rather own books than just about anything else.

  10. Mandi, I didn’t know you were so frugal! I am grinning ear to ear because I am the same way. I just had a coworker ask me where I got my purse, because she wanted one like it, and I cracked up laughing because I bought it at Salvation Army for $3.

    I’m going to have to post on this topic!

  11. The purse thing is funny. I have one purse I bought on my honeymoon (four years ago and it was the only thing besides books and food that I bought) and one purse that was a friend’s castoff. If you have girlfriends one of them buys purses, just admire the one you like and she’ll give it to you when she’s done.

    I’m so frugal I can tell you the per-person cost of every meal I cook. I feed six (me, my husband, my two toddlers, my sister and her fiance) on around $75 per week. That includes diapers!!! And sometimes wine!

    I make my own crackers. Ditto refried beans.

    I run barefoot because I can’t justify new running shoes every six months.

    I make my mascara last at least a year, sometimes two.

    I haven’t bought lipstick for four years.

    I grew up poor. Just having money for books is really luxurious and all I want to spend money on.

    I think I’m kinda ridiculous.

  12. […] Jessica had an interesting post up last week, which included the following: I don’t buy books. Why don’t I buy books? Well, I […]

  13. Oh, the quintessential reader’s dilemma/guilt. I have found that a mixed-purchasing strategy is the most sustainable and ethical for me. The issues with book buying, at least for me, are: consumptionism, support for industry and cost. So I buy some secondhand books (reduce consumption, cheap), new books (pumping money and feedback into the publishing industry), books from internet websites (cheap, good range, though not very carbon-friendly) and borrow some from the library (free, indirect source of feedback into publishing). Seems to work pretty well so far, although I have amassed many, many books this way.

    On the issue of expenditure on books, I found George Orwell’s Books v Cigarettes essay very entertaining, too…

  14. […] | Reports of its demise were premature.  The little bookstore in Cloverdale that I covered in an earlier post did not, it turns out, actually close.  It just relocated.  No wonder we didn’t see any […]

  15. […] or so ago, I checked out statistics on e-book sales.  The math showed that e-books are currently less than a hundredth of one percent of all book sales.  To me the fact that people are still hyperventilating over e-books is […]

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