Bookstores: Oblivion or Survival?

"Saying that bookstores won't be around in the future because Wal-Mart and Amazon sell books is like saying Italian restaurants will go out of business because we have canned spaghetti sauce."--Michael Norris, a senior analyst at Simba Information, in a Houston Chronicle piece headlined "Booksellers buck e-trend: Analysts say there's a place for stores that do their job well."


I have some problems with the spaghetti sauce analogy. I do not think spaghetti sauce in a jar is a good analogy to the situation of a digital media compared to a physical media. I think a better analogy is record stores being affected MP3s. A digital format for music decimated record stores. Are there some left? Sure. But way less than there was 20 years ago. Way way less.

Bookstores already operate with razor thin margins. As more and more ebooks sell the sales at bookstores will be cut into. Once that razor thin profit margin is gone you have a whole pile of businesses that are losing money. Then they close up. My prediction is that 80% of physical bookstores will close in the next ten years.

The only people that will cry when overpriced book stores close are those who are emotionally nostalgic and grew up with their parents taking them to the bookstore every Saturday. I'm quite happy to buy new books from Amazon because of the selection and price. I'm quite happy to get most of my books at the library. Thanks.

Mr. Norris is confused. There is a qualitative difference between dinner made with spaghetti sauce from a jar and dinner at an Italian restaurant. If Italian restaurants used the jar sauce, he might have a point - but they don't. It's apples and oranges. The book you buy at Wal-Mart or Amazon is NOT qualitatively different from the one you buy at the book store. It's the same book, only less expensive. There are differences (some might say advantages) that you get with the bookstore, but the actual item isn't one of them. If this guy is a senior analyst at a company that specializes in information and people listen to him, I'm very concerned. He certainly doesn't understand the basic premise of the comparison.

Those of you who don't understand the spaghetti sauce analogy, look again at the last sentence in that paragraph: "Part of the value of a bookstore is the expertise of its staff, he said." I can only speak for myself, but the Amazon recommendations system just doesn't cut it for me, and will never compare to knowledgeable, helpful human beings. It's the bookstore *experience* he's talking about; and no, it's not just "emotional nostalgia," either. Independent bookstores, especially, play a role in the community that Amazon can never match, with author signings and reading clubs and such. I realize that not everyone who just wants a "good read" is interested in that, but in an age when simply seeing what another person has underlined in an ebook passes for a "social experience," I think it will indeed be a sad day if such stores close. Btw - I recently requested a book at a local indie bookstore that I had pre-ordered from Amazon, after Amazon decided to delay delivery of it by 3-5 months (no kidding). The bookstore was able to get it for me in just a couple of days. So thank goodness that for now, at least, there's still an alternative to Amazon.

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