Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores

Over the last decade or so, the rise of Amazon has caused shivers to go down the spines of booksellers of brick-and-mortar stores. Borders went belly up in 2011 and Barnes and Noble is weathering a big storm again after reporting its quarterly earnings Tuesday. According to Publishers Weekly's Jim Milliot, revenue at the big chain fell 7% in its most recent quarter. The Nook e-reader, which has never caught on in the wake of Amazon's Kindle, has been a big loss leader. Speaking from personal experience when I've been at my local B&N, I've heard multiple customers come in for tech support, only to be turned away because the store's "best tech support guy is out." Apple customer service support, Nook is not.

The bookseller giant also said their stores benefited from the ongoing spat between Amazon and big publisher Hachette as well as book-to-film adaptations for the teen audience like Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay. As for a planned redesign of its website, retail CEO Mitch Klipper said it would be delayed until after the Christmas shopping season. I have to admit, isn't that bad. It doesn't beat Amazon, but then again, few e-commerce sites do.

In my town of about 210,000, we've never had a genuine independent bookstore, but we used to have a Borders in addition to the Barnes and Noble. I used to peruse the two-story Borders right before catching a movie at the local megaplex (the two were adjacent to each other). Both the movie theater and Borders were adorned with figures like a cameraman outfitted with a cowboy hat and a little girl perched atop the Borders sign reading a book while the Barnes and Noble sat a couple of miles away across the street from the city's car dealerships. Since Borders went belly-up, the space it occupied has become a Gold's Gym and the figures are long gone (though the theater's is still there). Meanwhile, Barnes still draws a crowd, though it recently had its large wooden doors that it's had since opening replaced by dark, gun metal gray ones. Given the store's wood-and-green motif, the new doors are really out of place.

Ironically, as Barnes reported its earnings, Slate writer Zachary Karabell came out with a report on the growth of independent bookstores. During the late 1990's and early 2000's, big bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders were booming while independents were dying out. Karabell notes that 1,000 independent stores closed between 2000 and 2007. Now, shops like Washington's Politics and Prose and Portland's famously massive Powell's are booming with 8% growth over the past three years, according to Karabell. He makes an interesting point in that the big chains were looked at differently than Amazon and that's what did them in, but the independents have managed to dodge the whole mess altogether by offering author Q&A's on a bigger scale than ones offered by a chain store and cultivating a culture all their own. Independent stores are doing well in the hardcover nonfiction category, no surprise given the recent success of Unbroken, Hard Choices and In the Kingdom of Ice. Patrons flock to book signings, mingle over books and sellers offer suggestions on a wide variety of genres.

Within the last year or so, I stumbled onto Vroman's Bookstore, a Pasadena institution for 120 years. In the heart of the Pasadena Playhouse district, the local community has been hugely supportive of the store, despite the photo I took on the right, which was taken on a summer weekday. Consider that the Barnes & Noble on the opposite end of Old Town Pasadena gets busy on the weekends too, but Vroman's tends to be a bit busier. One of the strengths of Vroman's is its emphasis on its Southern California roots, whether it be its robust film book section, subject matter or writers. California author Edan Lepucki was a former Vroman's writing instructor and used to sell books at its West Hollywood sister store Book Soup.

Since I first went there last summer, I've quickly fallen in love with the place. A fair number of my paperbacks have been purchased from Vroman's. A few weeks back, they had an anniversary sale that allowed me to bring home some loot for $15. Walked out of there with three hardcovers, which is rare for me because I tend to favor paperbacks for the cost. I had been looking for A Man and His Ship for months and was about ready to give up and take the Amazon plunge before I found it at Vroman's, along with Fourth of July Creek and Travels with Casey, which were just released this summer. While independents still have some kinks to figure out, especially in the world of ebooks, here's to hoping they stick around for a long, long time.

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