Where Have All the Bookshelves Gone?

An insider’s thoughts on the devolution of bookselling

When I attended UCLA in the mid-’80s, my neighborhood supported three chains, two independent booksellers and a dealer who sold only antiquarian books. We had a feminist bookstore, a children’s bookstore and a big place that sold only art and architecture books. There was a dark, musty dive devoted to mysteries, and another spot specializing in science fiction and fantasy. The poets had a place to call their own, and so did the anarchists.

In those days, communities relied heavily on booksellers, counting on them to stock more than best-sellers and paperbacks. Each shop had its own personality. Clerks were frequently well-read and opinionated, and nobody sold coffee. A good bookstore was an ideal meeting place; a great bookstore gave a neighborhood some flavor and a unique identity. One couple I knew divided their time equally between the big spiritual bookstore in Santa Monica and the comic-book joint across the street. It was an era of specialization, rather than outright competition, with plenty of customers for everyone.

By the mid-’90s, big chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble muscled their way across the map, putting scores of mom-and-pop booksellers out of business. Amazon accomplished the same thing via the Internet, and they stay open 24 hours a day, always have a recommendation and quickly recall the last thing you bought. Good booksellers do that, too, but we like to keep regular business hours and occasionally take a day or two off. In the past, competition from another bookstore made both stores better. Chain stores and online retailers just take the fun out of it. How do you compete when someone else sells the same item for less than your supplier charges?

Consequently, fewer bookstores opened. Older, established shops—faced with rising rents and diminishing returns—had a choice: They could shutter their store and sell their inventory online, or they could simply get out of the business altogether. In December Laredo, Texas, became the largest U.S. city without a bookstore, forcing serious readers to San Antonio, 150 miles away.

In the days before Oprah, booksellers weren’t just retailers; they were tastemakers. At independent bookstores, displays reflect the interests of the employees; windows and shelves are filled with staff picks and reactions to current events and trends. At chain stores, publishers pay for the choicest real estate; they want their books prominently placed. More often than not, promotions rather than pure emotions sell books.

So where is bookselling going? Based on the rate publishers are dumping their commissioned reps (the folks who actually visit the bookstores, present catalogs and take orders from book buyers), all bets seem to be on e-books. From Amazon’s Kindle to Barnes & Noble’s Nook to Sony’s Reader to Apple’s iPad, the industry’s hope is that readers start downloading novels like Top 40 hits. From there, publishers could market directly to readers, bypassing bookstores altogether. Authors (of all levels) could sell direct too, just like indie bands.

What some people fail to realize, however, is that books are finessed throughout the publishing process. Agents act as quality-control gatekeepers, editors play a huge part in shaping manuscripts, and there’s additional input from design, marketing and publicity departments. On the front end, all those now-unemployed book reps provided valuable feedback and opinions based on their visits with book buyers; if booksellers didn’t like a cover or thought a book was priced too high, the rep could deliver the news to the home office. Who will communicate that information now? Or is the future of literature bound to an eternal rough-draft for consumers to hash out?

For the time being, everybody seems focused on the novelty of these new digital delivery systems (Look, Ma, I just uploaded a book!), while forgetting about people’s relationship with books and bookstores. I don’t have a problem with digitized music or movies, but I want my books in three dimensions.

The fact is, e-books are gaining in popularity. As new generations are raised in an all-digital world, e-books may well dominate the publishing industry. I still visit real bookstores every chance I get, but things just aren’t the same. My neighborhood has a Barnes & Noble, but the Borders is boarded up; the last time I visited my college neighborhood, most of the bookstores I knew had closed for good. Some day all bookstores may be antique stores, but I’ll be there, browsing.

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