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Bye Bye, Bookstore: As readership declines and independent bookstores vanish from the American landscape, what remains of the life of the mind?

Owen Tierney

Owen Tierney has had to shutter his bricks-and-mortar shop and now operates Books Unlimited online. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

It’s mid February, and for the first time in more than a decade, I’ve returned to the city that hosts my alma mater. I have a crowded agenda, but I make time to visit “Nostalgia U.” I loved everything about that campus—its stately trees, old buildings and smorgasbord of students. Mostly, I loved the commercial street that flanks its west side. That’s where I conducted my extracurricular education—in small and mid-sized bookstores—before, between and after classes.

Bookstores. Plural. At least three of them on three successive blocks.

The campus hasn’t changed much, but when I revisit my old haunts, I’m greeted with a shocking streetscape. There, at the store where I bought my copy of Being Geniuses Together, sits an Urban Outfitters. Down the block, at the outpost where I snagged my Hammett and Chandler, the Starbucks logo makes its reference to Moby Dick. And the shop where I picked up my used copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem? Gone. Replaced by a sandwich vendor.

Every year in communities across America, independent bookstores—new and used, small and large, specialized and general—vanish like the frontier. In 2006, one of the mightiest of the independents, Cody’s of Berkeley, Calif., closed its doors after 50 years in business. Cody’s demise made national news—if it couldn’t withstand these challenging times, what bookstore could? After all, as one book blogger noted in the Los Angeles Times, Cody’s location near the University of California meant it enjoyed frontage on “the best book-buying block in North America.”

Closer to DU, Books Unlimited, once a fixture in University Park and later a presence on Denver’s Antique Row, succumbed to market forces in fall 2007. Like so many purveyors of used books, the owner has given up on a bricks-and-mortar presence in favor of an online operation.

The decline of the independents

The reasons for the decline of the independents are oft cited: the rise of the chain stores, the decline of readership among Americans, the convenience and price advantages associated with Internet shopping, the sheer abundance of options that claim our disposable income and spare time. And that’s just the top four on a very long list.

“I wake up on a Saturday morning and pray for rain,” says Joyce Meskis, owner of the three Tattered Cover Book Stores in metropolitan Denver and director of DU’s Publishing Institute. Rain means her clientele will seek indoor amusements, will tarry over a table of contents.

Within the book industry, Meskis is heralded as a hardy survivor. All appearances suggest that her stores are holding their own, but a few years ago, the store in lower downtown shuttered its third story and consolidated its inventory on two floors. After negotiations failed to yield a favorable lease, the four-story flagship store in Cherry Creek relocated to two-story digs on Colfax Avenue, where Meskis continues to maintain an inventory of 150,000 titles. In a defiant act of expansion, Meskis opened a store in Highlands Ranch a few years ago, a take-that stand against the chains that dominate the suburban markets.

Joyce Meskis

Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis is heralded as a survivor in the book industry. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Those business decisions reflect a constant struggle for market share in an overcrowded arena. “Back in the early 1990s, my recollection is that the independent market share across the country [for sales of adult trade books] was somewhere around 31 or 32 percent,” Meskis says. “After the major rollout of the bricks and mortar super stores and the Internet, that number came down to about 15 percent.” It’s now fairly stable, she says, but, “It’s too low; it’s just too low.”

BookSelling This Week, an online news source published by the American Booksellers Association, tracks the business end of book retailing with diligence. The coverage offers an EKG of the industry’s health, with a handful of peaks and a preponderance of dips. For every headline that reads “Harry Potter to the Rescue: Yearlong Bookstore Sales Slide Ends,” there are three more with somber news: “Bookstore Sales Suffer Summer Doldrums,” “April Sales Continue Slide,” “Sales Slump in March.”

The repeated appearance of words like slump and slide trigger a troubling question: Is there a single demographic, consumer, market or cultural trend that bodes well for independent bookstores? Just one?

A survey of market conditions yields little to instill confidence. Despite the best efforts of Oprah and J.K. Rowling, the number of readers nationwide is declining, and among those who do read, the habit of reading is diminishing. A November 2007 report from the National Endowment for the Arts—”To Read or Not To Read. A Question of National Consequence”—spins a grim tale: “Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates.”

Growing up in the suburbs, a whole generation of readers has had little exposure to the independent bookstore. “I don’t think I had ever really been in an independent bookstore until I took a publishing class last spring and we visited the Tattered Cover,” says Victoria Jaramillo, a senior journalism major at DU. “It had always been easy or convenient to go to Barnes and Noble or Borders and get a book there.”

Although Jaramillo counts herself a convert to the independent experience, she isn’t sure that her peers would feel the same. “I think my generation thoroughly enjoys the consistency of chain stores and the idea of always knowing what you are going to find at a particular store no matter where it is located throughout the country,” she says.

Jaramillo’s generation also is less attached to the physical book than the older set. Oregon-based Linda Leopard-Watson (BA communications ’84) has worked in publishing-related jobs since she was a college student. Recently, she did a guest teaching stint in a graduate-level class on book marketing at a nearby university. To her surprise, this class full of readers expressed ambivalent feelings about the conventional book.

“One of the students said, ‘I don’t care if books exist anymore,'” Leopard Watson recalls. These students were comfortable reading books on Blackberries, and they were happy to download a book one chapter at a time. For that, they have precious need of an independent retailer.

A challenging business model

The bookstore business model makes the enterprise a difficult one even during the best of times. As Meskis notes, the markup on adult trade books, the industry’s signature product, hovers around 40 percent—paltry and perhaps unsustainable. When independent book retailers are forced to discount, or when products sit on the shelves too long, that eats away at an already slender margin. To beef up their bottom lines, many independent bookstores are filled with sidelines, products like mugs and tote bags that can support a higher markup.

Consumers understandably seek the best prices for books, and for right now, those are available online, where merchants don’t have the expenses associated with a bricks-and-mortar store. “I’m a book buyer,” says Kerry Plemmons, an associate clinical professor at the Daniels College of Business Institute for Leadership, “but I buy my books online, almost always.” True, he ventures into a store to survey the selection, but then he purchases the titles he wants, for less, at a store with a cyber address.

Surveying this reality, Meskis plots new business strategies to keep her stores viable. “While I’m the eternal optimist,” she says, no trace of a smile on her face, “it does give one pause.”

It gives Plemmons pause as well.

He has followed the story of independent retailers as they confront encroaching chains. Many independents have actually benefited from the proliferation of chain operations, he says, noting that Starbucks created a demand for coffee and coffee shop ambiance that launched several thousand mom-and-pop outlets. “People always said that Starbucks would put coffee shops out of business, but that’s absolutely not true,” he said. In fact, as of 2003, the nation boasted about 30,000 independent coffee shops, more than double the number in business when Starbucks first launched its expansion campaign.

The opposite scenario seems to have played out for independent bookstores. They created a demand for an experience that the chains have replicated. Today, Plemmons says, the independents with the best chance of surviving are the shops with specialized inventory and programming—perhaps a store dedicated solely to mysteries or cookbooks. The others appear destined to fail. “You are never going to compete—not the little ones,” he says. “I don’t see them making it.”

Buying habits

In the interest of anecdotal research, I sail through a favorite independent. It’s prime shopping time, and I want some answers. Who’s in the store? Who’s browsing? Who’s buying?

In one book-filled reef, two middle-aged women survey the mysteries. At the register, a gray-haired gentleman pays for a history of the CIA. Out of the corner of my eye, I spy two exotic specimens—teenagers with spiked purple hair bopping by on their way to fiction. Mesmerized, I decide to follow. It’s a bit sinister—me, trailing behind unsuspecting customers. But I have to know. Where will they light?

Somewhere between Dickens and Eliot, the taller of the two plucks a paperback from the shelves. It’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it is, he tells his companion, “even better than Notes From the Underground.

If it wouldn’t blow my cover, I’d buy them each a copy of the complete works. After all, they represent hope, as surely as an egg in a condor’s nest.

To passionate supporters, the independent bookstore is a critical part of our education infrastructure. By reflecting the idiosyncratic choices of individual buyers, by showcasing the enthusiasms of their owners, by carrying titles that may not withstand cost-benefit analysis, independent stores cultivate independent thought. They allow us to ramble down various esoteric paths at our own pace and with our own appetite for detours. Should they meet the fate of the drive-in theater or the drug-store soda fountain, our educational odyssey is bound to suffer.

“It will mean the end of all sorts of picking and choosing in a less structured way,” says Professor Jan Gorak, who has taught in the DU English department for 20 years. A self-confessed bookstore addict, Gorak especially loves the experience that used bookstores offer: old volumes mixed with recent releases, a tumble of discoveries around every corner.

“I always like that time in a bookstore’s life when the content is out of control … and you’re sort of browsing in a half trance and finding things,” he says. In settings like these, young readers discover how much they have to learn. They happen upon an out-of-print treatise sporting 40 years of dust and pages of unfamiliar thinking.

In other words, Gorak adds, they stumble upon volumes that haven’t been pre-selected by the marketing department.

“To me, reading and bookstores are all related to autonomy,” he explains. Readers with a number of bookstores at their disposal flesh out their learning and refine their thinking. They go on to contribute to the diversity of thought and opinion that enrich the marketplace of ideas. Without independent bookstores willing to carry a wide array of titles, willing to let books sit on the shelves until they’re discovered, knowledge becomes the stuff of library catalogs and computer memory banks.

In Gorak’s imagined bookstore of the future, readers find a world circumscribed by business plans and market strategies. “The stock narrows down, and it tends to be ‘now’ oriented,” he says, describing an inventory heavy on just-released political memoirs and of-the-moment novels. “From a university point of view, it becomes stored knowledge, and new combinations become impossible. … Somebody growing up and wanting an education in the liberal arts would be very poorly served.”

What will the future hold?

My imagination has always been hospitable to doomsday scenarios. On my worst days, I can accelerate from a wonderful life in Bedford Falls to Armageddon in 60 seconds. Stalled somewhere between the two, I turn to Meskis for consolation. “What happens,” I ask, “when the last independent has gone out of business?”

To my chagrin, she doesn’t pooh-pooh the question. She doesn’t say, “Oh, as long as we’re trafficking in hypotheticals …”

Instead, she’s quiet for a moment. And then she says, “That can’t happen. We can’t let that happen.”

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