The Rise and Decline of Bookstores

Here in Massachusetts a lot of libraries are hurting. Mine was closed for a time. It’s re-opened now, but we’ve lost our certification, and may no longer participate in interlibrary loan, and we can’t borrow directly from nearby libraries. Being strapped for cash, they’re not buying a lot of books.

Ok, so I worked at Borders Corporate HQ for 8 years. However its been 6 years since I was in the thick of it up in Ann Arbor. Borders owns Waldenbooks; B&N owns B. Dalton.

Waldenbooks mall based bookstores is a contracting business and B&N plans to shutter ALL B. Dalton’s this year. (Borders expects to maintain the 130 or so most profitable Waldenbooks stores I believe) Why? Several reasons

  1. The mall store format actually costs more per square foot to operate than a big box Borders.
  2. In terms of volume Waldenbooks-format bookstores sold primarily bestsellers and paperback genre fiction (mostly romance) and as such they were usually undercut by others - including Amazon but also Wal-Mart, Costco, Target and other major non-book discount retailers who all sell the big blockbusters at a loss.
  3. The margin on books is actually very small and there was not enough room in the small-format stores to add high margin sidelines (coffee, stationary, etc).
  4. The mall-based stores are very dependent on mall-based traffic and are rather powerless if mall traffic takes a downturn.

In other words, Waldenbooks mall-based bookstores had more cost, less profit, were routinely outcompeted on price on their most popular items and had very little ability to market themselves independent of the mall they were in or take advantage of related high margin business. Basically, low-inventory bookstores that carry mostly what you can get elsewhere cheaper don’t make a ton of sense.

I would imagine that over the long term that books have been squeezed by other activities. There are any number of ways to entertain oneself at home or on the go that didn’t exist twenty, thirty, forty etc. years ago.

As I’ve said before, used bookstores here seem to have died. You still get used books in charity shops but some of them have stopped taking books. I’ve been selling used books in my store for €1 each and some move but they’re a very small part of the business and frankly I’m just trying to get rid of what we have.

I wonder how much of the book trade now is limited to airports and train stations. My town, with a population of about 30,000 has four bookstores. Ours is the only one that isn’t part of a chain and our main trade is school books.

In the sense that Borders/BN own most of the mall based bookstores and are intentionally closing them, this is true.

Here’s one theory.

Internet bookstores certainly haven’t taken all book buyers away from stores. They may not have taken the majority of buyers away from stores. But, for the heck of it, let’s throw a number like 30% out there.
If you’re a small to medium sized bookstore, and you’re humming along with a healthy 10% profit margin, and within 5 years you’ve lost 30% of your clientele, that’s a huge blow. Yes, there are still lots of people out there looking to go to bookstores. But the number of people coming in to buy from you has been cut down to such an extent that you can’t keep your doors open anymore.

Even the large stores aren’t immune to it. I made a thread a few months ago about a Borders near me that had cleared out its inventory to such an extent that I’d imagine 40% of its area was just empty space between shelves. The rest was filled with Popular books and Manga (which was double the size of the now dwindling Sci-fi section).

Interesting, I knew BN owned B Dalton’s for a long time, but there were other Mall chains and small stores that are long gone now and they started going quick as the big boxes opened.

Not all WaldenBooks or B. Dalton’s were mall stores. There used to be both types here in Boston, standing alone inside the city. They’re all gone. Independent bookstores are disappearing, too, and they’re almost all outside the malls. What’s happening is that Barnes and Noble (and, in view of Borders’ increasing troubles, there really is no other) is WalMarting the book biz.

And, like WalMart, when they then pull out (as they have at Downtown Crossing in Boston, right in the heart of the city, a store they’ve had for over 30 years) or in Auburn, MA (where the only real competition for miles was a WaldenBooks, which is much smaller, and now due to close), there’s nothing left.

In an ideal world, the lack of any book stores would be the ideal situation for a new one to start. But new stores don’t automatically grow when a WalMart decamps, and new bookstores may not, especially given the competition from internet booksellers and, possibly, a less-literate public. Far from encouyraging more bookstores in Auburn, a few years after the closing of the Barnes and Noble we’ll now have the closing of the Waldenbooks. aside from a handful of small used book stores (Annie’s Book Swap, Books and Beans) and the tiny Booklover’s Gourmet in Webster , that leaves nada for a long stretch around the area.
it’s not just a matter of “Gee, mall bookstores aren’t competitive against a Big Box bookstore.” The economics of the situation are killing off All bookstores, it seems, and if that sole Big Box leaves, there’s nothing left.

Lets be honest, compared to the big box format the mall based stores really sucked. They lacked selection and were terrible places to browse. You either found what you came in for, or you didn’t, and you left.

Most people will drive a little further to a Borders/BN, and spend more time in the store when they get there.

That was unusual, and unique to the Boston/CT area, the original home of Waldenbooks.

Well, as noted WalMart is walmarting the book business. There’s a race to the bottom in which it is very difficult-to-basically-impossible to make money on the type of books you could depend on to make your rent payment in the past (bestseller, Tom Clancy, Harry Potter type stuff).

Incidentally, with the closing of Barnes and Noble’s big store in Downtown Crossing and the withdrawal several years ago of Waterstones from Back Bay and Quincy Market, the only really big stores left in the central Boston Area are the Borders books on School Street near Downtown Crossing, the Borders Books in Cambridgeside Galleria, and the Barnes and Noble at Prudential Center.
considering the extremely shaky state of Borders ( ), I wouldn’t count on any except the B&N being there in five years. There are NO bookstores in Quincy Market anymore, and most of the stores in Back Bay are gone – I Think Trident Books is all that’s left.
Sure, you can get books at the college bookstores, and you can get business books in the Financial District, but this is appalling! Boston used to be filled with bookstores only a couple of years ago. Boylston Street, Charles Street, Quincy Market. Westin Plaza shopping area used to have two or three bookstores. Now they’re all gone from those areas. The Paperback Booksmith, the Avenue Victor Hugo, Buddenbrooks, Kate’s Mystery Books, the Asian Book Store, the Globe Map Bookstore – they’re all vanished.

I mostly agree, the mall stores in particular were of little use, but there were a few nice mom & pop shops that had no hope anyway that I still miss and I do miss all the Used Book stores that use to be around.

I like the Big Box stores. The big BN & B Daltons in Manhattan were magical and wonderful places to me as a kid.

One thing I’ve noticed is that while there are still some small and medium sized independant bookstores, there are no longer any large independants. The only bookstores left above a certain size are either Barnes & Nobles or Borders.

I think this is the key. The two giants drove all the other bookstores out of business, which means that the entire book selling industry is now dependant on the continued good health of just two companies. It’s become another corporate monoculture.

At least they are benevolent. Good prices, great stores and almost always free wi-fi and plenty of reading and social areas. They are like the best mom & pops grown to enormous size.

My point is that I’m in the middle of what once had an enormous concentration of bookstores,both new and used. Now there are almost none.

If Borders goes under, taking Waldenbooks with it, that removes a huge fraction of the remaining bookstores, leaving a handful of really big Barnes and Nobles and very rare independents, and the vagaries of charity-run used bookshops in spaces where new booksellers used to be. And those other places aren’t much different. If Borders goes, those “three big bookstores” in Monmouth Mall goes to only a Barnes and Noble.
this isn’t a random complaint about the business world, or a nostalgic longing for the way life was in the Good Old Days. This will make a fundamental difference in the way I find books – browsing online through is vastly different from looking through a bookstore, leafing through books and being exposed to things you otherwise wouldn’t encounter.
And without bookstores displaying their wares openly, I suspect that readership will continue to plummet, there will be fewer publications (bad news to me as both a reader and a writer), and less variety. God knows it’s hard enough getting Jules Verne now.

Here’s one big difference the Internet has made:

Before things like Amazon and its used book sales came along, there was a big incentive to visit as many different bookstores as possible. I used to have lists of books I’d heard about but had never had a chance to read, because they weren’t in the local bookstore (or library)—or in some cases they were, but not at prices I wanted to pay. So I would often go out of town and check out other bookstores and see what treasures I could find on their shelves, or what special deals they were selling in the bargain bins. Nowadays, though, if a book is available at all, it’s probably available online, and usually cheaper.

And I could say just about the same thing about music (CDs, etc.).

Hey, I get it, I am not disgreeing with anything you say. I hope Borders and BN stay around for a good long time. I visit the local BN and the Eatontown Borders fairly often. I just don’t bother with the Mall Stores.

As to Jules Verne, while it is far from the same, at least most of his stuff is online for free.

Yeah – mostly the awful and distorted Roth and Mercier Lewis translations from a hundred years ago.

They have just started published newer and more accurate translations.

Exactly. I remember when the first Barnes and Noble opened in the area. It just blew me away! All those books and magazines…and chairs…and you were free to read without anyone hassling you. No reason to ever go to B. Dalton again.

It is? Project Gutenberg has what looks like his entire collection, in a variety of languages, free to download. I can have all of it on my Kindle within a few minutes if I want it. And no, Amazon can’t delete it - they have no power over self-downloaded titles. I know YOU don’t like the Kindle, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us agree.

If anything, I see buying books as having become cheaper & simpler now that Internet-based book stores like Amazon and B&N have more titles and lower prices than any box store. My book buying has changed immensely in the last ten years; nowadays I can download first chapters for free to my Kindle to check out whether or not I want to read the book. If I do want a physical copy of the book, it’s delivered to my door for cheaper than I can get it at a local bookstore.

I don’t have any proof, but I’d say one reason that brick & mortar bookstores are disappearing are that people are realizing that there’s no need to pay retail price for books anymore. The last few times I’ve gone to a Barnes & Noble or Borders, I’ve browsed books and then ordered the ones I wanted from Amazon. I don’t see why anyone doesn’t do that; on a hardback, you’ll save $5-$15 per title, even including shipping.

And if it makes you feel any better, I don’t see bookstores disappearing at all in my small town. We have a B Dalton, a small chain called BookWorld, and a locally owned used & new store. There’s also the university bookstore, and a smattering of used book stores.

It doesn’t make me feel better – in my part of the world, the bookstores are in furious retreat, and I suspect that’s a harbinger for what you’ll see, especially if that Dalton’s closes.
Yes, I note above about the increase in on-line shopping. And I think that, with fewer coices, your options will get cut down. Project Gutenberg mainly gives the older translation of Verne, for instance, and those are the most suspect.

With on-line editions, there will be less incentive for other versions, different translations, and the like. I suspect that Kindle, at least at present, wouldn’t be happy with the complicated page setups of my Annotated Huckleberry Finn, and would rather sell the straight edition, which is public domain anyway. I may be wrong about the particular case, but it seems a likely trend.