More Independent Bookstores Closing


These days, not a week goes by without a local independent bookstore, sometimes a fixture of 30 or more years, the work of a lifetime, closing its doors. The tip of the iceberg:

Avenue Victor Hugo (Boston), WordsWorth (Cambridge), Midnight Special (Santa Monica), Sibanye (Baltimore), Red & Black Books (Seattle), Booked Up (Archer City TX--Larry McMurtry's store), Ruminator Books (St. Paul),Thackeray's (Toledo), My Sisters Words (Syracuse), Printer's Ink (Blacksburg VA), Northern Lights (St. Johnsbury VT),Salmagundi Books (Cold Springs NY), Boadecia's Books (Kensington CA), Book Mark (Eugene OR), Million Story Book Company (Fort Wayne IN) Eeyore's Books (NYC), Oscar Wilde Bookshop (NYC), Blackbird Books (Nashua NH) and many, many, many more.

This week brings news of at least four more closings:

    Branch's of Chapel Hill NC article
    Bound To Be Read (Albuquerque NM and Minneapolis MN) article
    and Altamont Books of Livermore CA article

Much has been written on the subject of the loss of local independent bookstores, but it's time to remind those of us who love books , and hopefully that's all of us LISNews readers, that they will soon be gone if we don't patronize them .

For those of you who want a little background on the history of the loss of the indies, here's an article (not recent, but still current) by Pat Holt, former book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle that sums up how we've come to this sorry state. Pat also writes a wonderful online column, here with news of the book business.


This is a serious comment that is not meant as a flame.
This is from the article "There are lots of competitors. There are mass market books available in a lot of locations. Your grocery store. I'm not blaming the national chains, the discount chains nor the mail-order companies," said Bernard Weiss, executive vice president of finance for Hubbard Media Group in St. Paul, Minn.
There is plenty of competition people are not having a hard time getting books.
And in many ways there are more bookstores. I run an online bookstore and I ship 6-10 books everyday. Yesterday I sold these books:
Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Stewart, Elinore Pruitt
You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by Phillips, Julia
When Bad Things Happen to Good People: Twentieth Anniversary Edition
Horseman, Pass By : A Novel by McMurtry, Larry
Terror at Tenerife by Otis, George (Book about the largest air disaster before Sept 11th.)
Today I have had one order already for "The Cider House Riles" by John Irving.
I think people have better access to books now then they did ten years ago. The only function that I think a bricks and mortar bookstore is good for is to introduce people to new titles when the browse a collection. But I think this is a service that can be provided by libraries. If all the independent bookstores die out libraries can fill their role.
I think libraries should be doing much more to introduce people to new titles and books.
I created something called Joe's Books that I use to introduce people to books that I think are interesting. This is in addition to the books I sell online. Those books I physically own myself and ship myself.

Big box stores have many drawbacks, but poorly-run businesses that are not meeting any perceived need for their prospective customers will not stay in business. Why is this hard to understand?

When you provided the link to the Gibson's website, I expected to find that something Bad had happened. In fact I find that Michael Herrmann and John I-Forget-His-Last-Name are still there taking their pro-active, rather than reactive, approach to the challenges of keeping an independent bookstore in business. They're not resting on their Virtue as Independent Booksellers; they're actually out there making their store a place that everyone values and wants to shop in. Avenue Victor Hugo is gone because its owner refused to make any changes to his business, despite a lot of support from the community, including other local businesses. WordsWorth is gone from Harvard Square, because that model of large, general-interest, independent bookstore could no longer survive in the high-rent, mallified place that Harvard Square has become. And yet, in that same Harvard Square, the same owners' specialty children's bookshop, Curious George, is still doing well, the specialty sf shop Pandemonium is doing well, and some other independent specialty bookstores are still in business. This is because, instead of just whining about the fact that an independent like WordsWorth can't survive in the Square anymore, they are visibly offering their customers something that those customers can see that they can't get at Barnes & Noble.

No matter how good it may theoretically be for "the community" in the abstract, as a practical matter, I'm not going to spend much time shopping in a store which is actively disinterested in my business. "Actively disinterested", in the case of bookstores, includes responding to queries about books they don't have with "We don't have that." [No offer to special-order it.] It includes making statements like "We're a serious bookstore," when I ask about a lack sf & fantasy. It includes telling me "That's not sci-fi, that's literature, as if the two were mutually exclusive, when I comment on books that are manifestly fantasy or sf (such as Jasper Fforde's books), shelved amongst the general fiction.

The big-box chain stores, of course, commit all of these sins, too--with one important exception. They don't commit the first sin I listed; they're sometimes almost too eager to special-order something I've asked about that they don't have in stock. And Amazon and other online sellers simply index a book in as many different categories as seem likely to attract readers interested in that book.

What the independents can do (but too often don't) that the big-box stores can't, is what Gibson's did for me while I was in Concord. They didn't just special-order particular titles I asked for; over time, they actually changed their stock to include a much higher percentage of the kind of high-quality, well-written sf and fantasy that I like. Over time, I began to go in there and find books on the shelf that I would have special-ordered had I known about them, but I didn't. And they'd pull books off the shelf and say, "Have you seen this yet?" and nearly every time they'd be right--it was something I wanted. B&N and Borders are never going to do that for me, and Amazon tries but has a much lower success rate. The problem is that too many independents aren't trying to do this; they sell what they want to sell, and their prospective customers go to the big-box chains or to Amazon instead, where they may get the same poor service, but without the attitude, and they do get their books.

And a final note: you refer to independent bookstores now carrying used books, too, rather than exclusively new books, as if it were an obviously bad thing. Why? Why shouldn't independents be trying to provide something that the big-box chains either can't do, or can't do as well?

I don't think anyone has been arguing that the use of Amazon and chain bookstores is killing some independents. I guess the issue is what we do about it. I don't think some token purchases will save the independent stores. They either have a service that people want and they survive or they do not and they die. If they die and we lose something valuable then maybe libraries can look into carrying the ball from there.

I'll try to rephrase: Why is difficult to see that the growth of chain bookstores and on-line buying from the chains and is causing the demise of independent brick & mortar stores?

I would have to agree with the poster who commented about the "critical independents" who may not be providing a service the public wants. In my small town, we only had one bookstore until B+N opened up. That particular bookstore was snob city! I may not read all the classics, or have many sonnets memorized, but as a graduate library student, I consider myself reasonably well-read.Heaven forbid if you wanted to purchase -- oh my! -- a "mainstream novel" by Jonathan Kellerman (for example). I went there once, won't go there again. I felt more comfortable in my oral surgeon's chair as he prepared to extract a wisdom tooth than in that place.Because of the above situation, I started using and I really like it. I can get introduced to similar books I would never have seen either at the "snob bookstore" or at B+N because they don't stock variety, just quantity.I also like going to B+N early on Saturday or Sunday mornings for the atmosphere in our local shop.

Serious question. Why is this hard to understand? What are you referring to as hard to understand? The impact of local businesses or what businesses have to do to survive?

From the website:

"Think globally, shop locally--did you know that a dollar spent in a locally-owned store creates three times the amount of local economic activity as the same dollar spent in a big-box retailer? Big box stores, far from helping local economies grow, are actually a drain on the communities they enter. Click here for the research: "Livable City Study".

Borders is already in Concord; I am not at all certain that Gibson's will continue to keep going strong (though I hope they will) if a Barnes & Noble moves in too. Almost every independent bookstore that exclusively used to carry new books is also carrying used books an effort to survive. Why is this hard to understand?

Since Larry McMurtry's bookstore was a used book store, it's unlikely that he'd have any problem with Bibliofuture also being in the used-book business.

Have you ever had a yard sale, and sold off cheaply some no-longer-wanted pieces of furniture? The designs for those pieces of furniture, and the fabric covering them if they were upholstered, were also someone's intellectual property--but the physical object was yours, and what you sold was the physical object, not the intellectual property rights. It's the same with books. You own the copy, you can sell the copy; what you can't do is make more copies and sell or give away those.

As for independent bookstores: When I lived in Concord, NH, and, even after I moved, while I still worked there, I had access to a wonderful independent bookstore, Gibson's Books. They didn't carry a lot of what I liked originally, but they would special-order anything, and as I shopped and special-ordered regularly, they started getting in more of what I liked, so that after a while they were getting a lot that I liked but hadn't heard of until I walked in the store and saw it on the shelf. They also responded creatively and effectively to the arrival of Borders Books in town, and lost the teenage evening date crowd (no, really; don't believe what you hear about teenagers and books), but otherwise weren't greatly affected by it.

Sadly, many independent bookstore owners don't want to work that hard, and/or simply aren't as good businesspeople. The latter is certainly true of Avenue Victor Hugo, whose owner, as the rents rose too high on Newbury Street to allow Avenue Victor Hugo's business model to be successful, steadfastly refused to move to the kind of area that upper Newbury Street had been when he first opened his store, or to change his business model to something that would be at home on the new Newbury Street.

The owners of Gibson's hated the internet and the terrible threat it represented when I first moved there, but by the time I stopped working in Concord, they had long since discovered that, via the miracle of the internet, they could sell a book to some guy in South Africa who was never going to walk into their store, even if he did someday make a trip to the US. Gibson's, because it responded both to changes in its local market and the effects of the internet, is still going strong. Larry McMurtry decided he didn't want to change his business model to stay in the bookselling business and chose to close his store. Others, though, don't want to the way they do business to adjust to the changing market, and also don't want to accept the fact that there's no longer a market for buggy whips. Times are inevitably going to be rough for them. The small, general-interest independent bookstore that isn't offering something different from what Amazon, abebooks, Borders, and Barnes & Noble are offering is in trouble. The independent bookstore that finds a niche it can fill that isn't being filled by those, is not.

I know that you genuinely believe what you've said about independent bookstores (that we don't need them), but in my opinion, you are just wrong.

I think I was more saying, "Do we need the ones that folded?" If all the independents close I will have an issue with that. But if just some close that is the market at work.
If people feel that critical independents are closing they should look at what was critical about that independent. What service are they providing that you can get no where else? Then find a person or organization that can reliably and profitably provide that service.

I might have been wrong about McMutry's motives for closing his store. I said that he was closing it because he wanted to do other things. When I reread the article I saw this But McMurtry says his mind is made up, that he needs a break from a business that's been losing customers. The problem is a changing market— not competition from large chain bookstores in Wichita Falls, about 25 miles north of Archer City and where McMurtry was born, and Fort Worth, about 100 miles to the southeast.
There is some indication in that paragraph that McMutry is closing because of a lack of cutomers. In a 2001 Los Angeles Times article there was this statement by McMurtry "The reason we are successful as an open-shelf bookshop is because customers can't find out what we have on the Internet. They have to come. They have to look at the books. It is very old-fashioned, but it works," McMurtry said.
If McMurtry would put some of his collection online he might be able to keep the business running if he wanted to. Another article I read about his bookstore talked about another professional book dealer coming down and buying $14,000 in books from the bookstore. That seller was probably going to make some of those books available online. McMurtry made the decision not to put any books online and have a hybrid store and the result is that his market is those people that will drive to a small town in Texas. There are clearly people that will do that because I was thinking of it myself but if you want to make money that is a pretty limited market in such a small town.

You may physically own the book, but you don't own the book as a piece of intellectual property.
And what I physically sold was the book. I did not sell rights to the book because they were not mine to sell. In the United States we have the first sale doctrine. The copyright holder is able to collect on the first sale and after that people can sell the book as an object but have no ownership rights to the content. I think Larry McMurtry would have no problem with me selling his book. McMurtry store in Archer City was a used book store. (Line from the article you linked to: His store is filled with hard-to-find, out-of-print and used books.)
He was selling other people's books and they were getting no money for them. McMutry should be the last person to criticize me.
McMutry's place did not close from lack of business but because he wants to do other things. I am bummed that his store is closing because I was planning a trip to his bookstore for this fall. I am not against bookstores. I love bookstores. But they are businesses and businesses rise and fall. Good businesses find ways to weather the storms or provide a product or service that people want over time. The Strand and Powell's will not be closing anytime soon.
Back to your comment about me selling McMutry's book. Are you against used bookstores in general? You say you want bookstores and towns to have their own flavor and used bookstores are the true flavor because of their eclectic diverse collections. If you open a bookstore in any town and try to sell new books the market is probably going to force you into selling the bestsellers and then really what is different than that and Barnes and Nobles or some other cookie cutter bookstore?
And because his bookstore has gone out of business, other local businesses are bound to follow suit.
I would argue that this may not necessarily be the case.

I know that you genuinely believe what you've said about independent bookstores (that we don't need them), but in my opinion, you are just wrong.

I see that one of the books you're selling was authored by Larry McMurtry. You might want to ask him (owner of the now closed Booked Up in Archer City, TX ) what he thinks of your selling your copy of his book.

Will he get royalties? No. Will his publisher? No. You may physically own the book, but you don't own the book as a piece of intellectual property.

There is a supply chain for a number of important reasons.

Booked Up (among others) is going out of business after twenty years for many reasons: because of 'everyman' starting his/her own bookstore, because of corporate greed among the chains and wholesalers, because of our shift away from patronizing local businesses. And because his bookstore has gone out of business, other local businesses are bound to follow suit.

I, for one, don't want to see that happen, in Archer City, Omaha, New York City, or any town with a personality of its own.

I saw this factoid on the Ellis website and thought it was interesting, In 1896, the women's "Law and Order Committee" slate won the local election, and Ellis' all-woman council and a lady mayor became one of the first such groups in the United States.

Yesterday I sold a copy of a book to Ellis, Kansas. Population 1873. Check out their website,(website shows a good picture of the town) they have a new library in town and thanks to Amazon and their library they have access to books in many similar ways to what New Yorkers do. Places like Ellis rarely even had a boostore now they have access to millions of books that can be delivered to their door.

It's easy. Get technology.So many of my used bookstores have no idea what's on their shelves. I've *finally* found one store that has it together. They don't have it setup so that I can easily scan their daily updates, but they do update their stuff everyday. They'll hold books up to 7 days for me, and I can swing by on a Friday night and pick stuff up (yay, no shipping!). Needless to say, they're going to be getting a *lot* more of my business than other stores.-- Ender, Duke_of_URL