The “Death” of the Hardcopy Print Bookstore

Some say there will soon be no more bookstores, ebooks will take over everything. They base this on seeing Borders go belly up and Barnes and Noble getting shakier by the day.

I don’t think so. I think the busineess is, more or less, just returning to where it used to be long ago.

Let me explain.

When I was growing up and buying books in the 70s, suburban bookstores were either independent mom-and-pop affairs that carried new and/or used, or they were mall chains like Waldenbooks or Barnes and Noble before they had standalone stores. I can’t speak to large urban bookstores, though I did visit a couple of big ones in real cities like San Fran or Los Angeles. But for suburbia, bookstores were seldom larger than any other small shop, perhaps 1000-2000 square feet.

Then in the, what, late 1980s and 1990s to the early 2000s Borders and Barnes & Noble reinvented the book market – good for them! just in time to create a print bubble. I think this happened because of the wealth effect of that time period, and people were buying a lot of luxury books such as coffee-table books etc. to outfit their McMansions, or hanging out at those stores to meet other readers – this was the center of the baby boomer wave in late youth and early middle age. There was a lot of socializing going on there, before smartphones and the expansion of the internet.

Also, those boookstores sold CDs, movies and other things so they became something of one-stop media entertainment shops. Even before ebooks there were jokes about how people spent more money on coffee and biscotti there than books. They also fed a lot of fanboy demand from the children of wealthy baby boomers raised on video games and Star Wars culture for series genre fiction of all sorts – graphic novels, D&D rulebooks and novels, Star Wars and Star Trek fanchise (yes, that’s FANchise) novels, and ever-longer series of epic-style, if overwritten and tedious, fantasy series.

They gave the people what they wanted.

Then several things happened at once. By “at once” I mean in the space of about 3 years.

First, the economic crash made new books into luxury items. A frugal reader could go to used bookstores and get twice the value with a bit more diligence for their usual fiction fare. Luxury books themselves – $100 art coffee table books for example – became dinosaurs for most people who were worried when their house lost half its value.

Second, the rise of Kindle and ebooks and all the platforms for them allowed heavy readers to save a lot of money in the long run, and never need to leave their homes to shop for their books. It’s also a heck of a lot easier to find a specific book, or fill in your missing series books, via ebook.

Third, the tradpubs were slow to recognize the price competition they faced. When paperbacks soared from $5 to $10 in less than ten years, during years of low inflation, the real cost of a new paperback did not compare well to a $3.99 ebook.

Fourth, the rise of Amazon and its Amazon Partner system mean that now, readers don’t need to go scour bookstores for that specific print book – just go online and almost anything is available somewhere through Amazon, delivered right to your door, at used book prices. So now the new book market is competing with, in essence, a worldwide used bookstore.

Fifth, books in general now have more competition for entertainment dollars and time – games, streaming video, endless free internet content – so all books are under some competitive pressure.

All of these things mean that only the hottest and most desirable books are bought at a high price point. The rest either have to be heavily discounted or they will not sell. Witness all the discounting going on now. List price for a trade paperback? $11-$15. “Normal” discounted price? 40% off,so now we are back to or below the old paperback prices, for frankly a better product with larger, easier to read print that looks better on your shelf. The market has spoken.

Which brings me back to my point – big-box bookstores in every suburb are temporal anomalies, abnormal products of a bubble and luck, not a sustainable business model. Even before consumer electronics, new books were a steady semi-luxury, and used books or cheap paperbacks sustained the masses. Everything old is new again. Hardback print books are a luxury, and ebooks have taken the place of the really cheap paperbacks. There are some other differences but bottom line, the bubble is over with and there is simply no place left in modern American suburbia – right now – for the big box bookstore. They were flukes.

So now the print bookstores are, voila, just like when I was growing up.