The Rise and Decline of Bookstores

I haven’t seen anything about this on the net. Not even a Search turns anything up. Oh, sure – you can find articles about the decline of used bookstores, and specialty bookstores 9like feminist ones), and lots on the decline of independent bookstores. But I’m talking about all bookstores, including the “big box” stores like Barnes and Noble.

When I was a kid, even though I lived in a suburb of New York City, there were no bookstores nearby. I bought my books at department stores, mostly, where I scoured the few wire or wooden racks for science fiction or history or whatever. There were a few books at the downtown newsstand (I still have and use the very large and comprehensive Roget’s Thesaurus I bought at my local news outlet). There were even a few bookracks at the auto parts store and the hardware store (I bought my copies of Asimov’s Foundation series at the hardware store).

If I wanted a real bookstore I had to go to the nearest city with a college, or close by there. Even the local college had a pretty poor excuse for a bookstore. Even the new indoor enclosed malls didn’t have bookstores – I bought books at the department stores in the malls. The only places I saw big, comprehensive bookstores were in major cities.
Then in the early 1970s the bookstore chains started to proliferate near me. I encountered my first WaldenBooks at the largest nearby enclosed mall, and it blew me away. Then one opened up in the new mall they built near my home. The trend continued throughout the 70s and eighties and into the nineties. The big mall where I first encountered Waldenbooks eventually boasted four bookstores. Even the small mall near my home boasted two unrelated bookstores.

Of course, in that time I’d moved away to college and grad school, living in several cities, which had even more bookstores (and lots of used bookstores). especially Boston, with all its colleges and literate population. It was heaven.

In the nineties the Used bookstores started closing. Where there were once several in Harvard Square, there is now only one. One of the ones that disappeared was enormous – it was gone overnight. The used bookstores along Newbury Street evaporated. the used bookstores in towns like Salem and Portsmouth and Newburyport, once so numerous, are all gone. The only used bookstore I know of in Boston is the ancient Brattle Books, near the Common.

I’m not stupid – I saw the decline happening at the same time as the rise of the Internet, with its sites like Alibris, and the used book sales on Amazon. The internet gave used book sellers a way to precisely reach their best customers and eliminate the overhead of a physical store. I’m not surprised it killed used bookstores. I’m also not surprised that it cut into new bookstores, especially indy stores.

But the decline I see now is precipitous and huge. Bookstores in malls around here and cities I frequent are practically gone. The only indoor malls I know of in the Boston area with new bookstores are Cambridgeside Galleria and the Prudential Center. The malls that formerly had bookstores no longer do inside. A few have big Barnes and Nobles stores or Borders stores outside, but some have nothing. I’ve noticed a new trend of Used Bookstores inside malls, often in the very shops that originally housed new bookstores. These stores get their books free as donations, give proceeds to charity, and I suspect don’t pay very well. I know of four of them.

I’ve just seen in the paper that another independent bookstore near me is closing, and that Waldenbooks announced last month that it will be closing all remaining Waldenbooks in Massachusetts shortly. This includes the only other new bookstore in the Boston area I know of in a mall – the Waldenbooks in Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, which is why I didn’t list it above.
Newly revamped malls, like the upscale Natick Collection didn’t even have bookstores with the revamping. (You know it’s intended to be tony if it’s a “Collection” rather than a “mall”) (Incidentally, this means that there will be no WaldenBooks near Walden Pond – the closest one, in Lexington, closed last year. Of bookstores near that pond, there is one run by the Park Service, and Concord itself still has one indy bookseller and one used bookstore).

this is al pretty grim. Southbridge, Mass. has no new bookstores of its own. aside from the one at the historic village, the nearest was a Barnes and Noble a 45 minute drive away. That closed over five years ago, leaving only a Waldenbooks at the mall further down the road. Now that’s going. The only new bookstore nearby is a tiny independent that’s still a drive.

around 1990 the UK chain Waterstone’s moved into Boston in a big way, opening a huge store in the old Essex Street Theater at the corner of Essex and Newbury that instantly outclassed anything in town, as well as satellite stores at Burlington (which already had two others bookstores) and Quincy Marketplace (which had one other). Sadly, they closed down after only a decade. Now there are no bookstores at either the Burlington Mall or Quincy Marketplace.

Okay – this is pretty grim. there’s a Barnes and Noble near me, and this used bookshop that was formerly a Waldenbooks. If I drive to Salem there’s an independent bookstore and a bulk bookstore that has been “going out of business” for the past decade (but always seems to have the latest books), but that’s it. Formerly there had been scads of new and of used bookshops in that same radius.
I can’t believe that all the people buying those books are now getting them through the internet. It’s barely possible, but I’d be interested if anyone could provide a link to any stories on that. I suspect that the truth is a decline in reading. I notice fewer of my acquaintances have bookcases in their homes. And that’s pretty depressing, for lots of reasons.

And before anyone brings up Kindle and other such readers, these are far too new to have this kind of impact. I have yet to see anyone using such a reader in public (I suspect I’ll be seeing them when I’m travelling next month, but the airline and train crowd is a specialized audience, and precisely the ones who’d go for such a space-saving and trendy device). In the future – the near future – I expect them to have an impact on bookstores, but the decline in bookstores has been going on for too long, even allowing for business planning, for this to be the cause. Long-Range planning doesn’t cause independent booksellers to decide to go out of business.

I’'m not sure if what you’re describing is systemic around the world or of it’s just in your area. We have many used bookstores in the greater Portland area. Powell’s has been in the used book business for 38 years, they have several locations and haven’t had to close a single one yet. You can also order their books directly off their website if you’re too lazy to go into one of their brick-and-mortar stores. So what I’m saying is, I’m not seeing what you describe, there’s no decline here.

I see the decline in both new and used bookstores throughout Massachusetts, and in New Jersey and New York. There used to be several new bookstores along Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, for instance. The last time I was there I only found one between the library and Central Park. Many of the bookstores that used to be in Harvard Square are gone, like Asian Books and several other specialty stores. And nothing has replaced them. And these are prime locations for bookstores. As I say, bookstores are almost completely gone fro m inside malls around here. There are charity used bookstores inside, and there are a few Big Box 9almost invariably B&N) outside some.

Here’s a report on declining book reading by the National Endowment for the Arts*:

I suspect that a lot of people are reading internet sites now instead of magazines and books. I further expect that electronic readers will accelerate this trend.

and I hate Kindle – it forbids lending, loading onto other platforms, and demonstrably retains the capability to remotely erase your book. I don’t want the bookstore having that capability.

*Just to screw with your mind, though, this one claims reading is on the rise. I don’t buy it. Read the fine print – the rate of people is increasing faster than the rate of reading:

I’ve been hearing about the decline of bookstores for my whole life and I just don’t see it. When I was young there were a few used book stores around that I would visit but there was very little other kinds of book stores. When I went to college there were more but still not a lot. 20 years ago I drove half way around the beltway (northern Virginia) to get to the new Borders that just opened. What a place! The internet (Amazon) was supposed to kill off all the brick and mortar book stores. Now there is either a Borders or Barnes and Nobles in every single shopping place I go.

Well, it looks like Laredo, Texas will soon be the largest U.S. city without a bookstore:

I’ve seen a decline up here in southern NH as well. It seemed many a strip mall would have a bookstore, now all gone.

One thing that amazes me, however, is that on any weekend or weekday evening, the Barnes & Noble in Manchester and in Nashua will be packed with cars.

So, it seems that there is some demand out there.

And that’s not a recent development. My ex-wife’s parents lived in Laredo, so I had to visit there regularly. I was floored that a mall would NOT have a B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, but Laredo’s mall didn’t.

Supermarkets in most Texas cities have all the mainstream magazines and a decent sample of paperback best sellers. In Laredo, you couldn’t even find Sports Illustrated or a Tom Clancy book at the supermarket- just cosmetology magazines and gossip magazines (in both English and Spanish

The ONLY posiitve aspect of getting divorced is that I don’t ever have to go back to Laredo.

One reason I started this was to see if others observed the same thing I had. It boggles my mind that Portland (Maine I’m assuming) doesn’t see the same effect I see throughout Massachusetts or sparky! sees in southern NH. shiftless says no decline in Virginia. I got the impression that, flush with bookstores as DC is, it’s lost a few. I don’t know about the surrounding area, though.

As joebuck’s link indicates, Newark, NJ is without bookstores, too.
Anyone else?

Women’s bookstores disappearing (The Cambridge one closed a few years ago):

Christian Bookstores disappearing (from Chick Publications, no less!):

and non-Chick:

Bookstores closing in Suburban New YTork:

Bookstores closing in Maine (take note, EvilTOHJ!):

Track the declining bookstores here:

I’m sure that EvilTOJ is talking about Portland, Oregon. Powell’s is a what I would call a destination bookshop. In the best tradition of used bookstores, the place is a labyrinth of floors and stacks; even with the signs you need a (PDF) map to find your way around.

Small market so there’s nothing to extrapolate from this, but the B Dalton at the mall closest to me (Fort Dodge) is closing in January. I haven’t bought much from them since I got on-line and discovered Amazon. Not because of the discount so much as the lousy selection and the hassle of mall shopping.

In the reading forums at the message boards where I hang out, when people talk about getting a book, seems like it’s always from Amazon, ABE, the Book Depository, ebay.

The Big Box Book stores are still doing well in Central Jersey. There are less little mall stores, but that is the cause of the BN and Borders, not the Internet.

What we have lost is the used bookstores. I think it is a matter of high overhead though. Taxes and Rents will kill marginal businesses.

Even in 1970 though this area had a variety of small book stores and book swaps. Though nothing compared to Manhattan of course.

Yeah, Laredo’s an interesting place. I did some time there for a work project some years back. In many ways it IS a cultural backwater - no bookstores, no real art galleries, not much of a music scene, and only one (small local history) museum. Even the food isn’t really anything to rave about, especially for a place right on the Mexican border. I’d get away to San Antonio or Houston whenever I had a chance.
But it is one of the few places I’ve been to in the United States where I honestly felt I was in a different world. Attitudes and social conventions down there are much different from you’d find elsewhere - not really Mexican, not really American. Even the way the people talk - they literally slip back and forth between English and Spanish.
Also, more importantly, the women there are smoking hot.

No they’re not. The Borders in East Brunswick closed a couple of years ago – Borders is hurting all over. But that one pained me, because it’s closest to where I grew up. The WaldenBooks and Dalton’s that used to be at Brunswick Square are gone, too, and only the Barnes and Noble is left. (There used to be a Barnes and Noble a little further up Route 18, but it closed, too.)

Woodbridge Center now has only a Borders Express (down from the 4 it once had), and I don’t give that much time.

There’s a Barnes and Noble outside Menlo Park Mall, none inside

Quaker Bridge Mall lists a B. Dalton’s, but that’s surely going to close.
It looks like a handful of Big Box Stores, the Barnes and Nobles being outside the malls, and some precarious Daltons and Borders that ought to be shut soon.

Yelow pages lists a few bookstores in New Brunswick and Princeton, and you’ve got venerable holdover used book shops like The Cranbury Book Worm, but the situation is about the same as when I was a kid, except for that Barnes and Noble. And if they decide to pull out, as when they shut that sole Dalton’s in Laredo, it’s a haul to the next place. Heck, the department stores don’t sell as many books as they did when I was a kid, and most of them are gone, anyway. The hardware and auto parts stores certainly don’t sell books anymore.

All I can tell you is check the Eatontown and Freehold areas. I’ll revise my comment above to Monmouth County then.

Been a while since I was there. Yellow pages lists several bookstores in both places, and Wikipedia notes that Monmouth Mall has “three big bookstores”. I envy you – I don’t know any other malls with three bookstores anymore.
On the downside, I note that several bookstores in both places are WaldenBooks and B. Dalton’s – and they’re both ailing. But you have other choices besides them and Barnes and Noble.

One thing that hasn’t been addressed is the impact of public libraries. I can’t speak for the rest of you, but the local libraries around here have been steadily expanding. It makes me spend less at the bookstore, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Curious, but I was just at a forum for my town - a burb W of Chicago, and someone posted that the BN one town over was closing. Another poster - a published author - chimed in that they expected Borders to shut down before BN. I think someone else said the downtown Chicago Borders was closing as well.

I’m pretty oblivious, because I pretty exclusively obtain my reading material at the library.

The small stores have been hit hard, but the big boxes are doing well and there are plenty of them in a short drive from me. I do miss my used bookstores though. So at least Monmouth County is bucking part of the trend you are seeing. Of course more statistics will show the education and income levels are extremely high in Monmouth County and than probably helps a lot.