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Conversations with Booksellers

February 23, 2012

Last week, I wrote about the future of book stores. My conclusion? Chain book stores like Barnes and Noble are almost certainly doomed (and I think they know this; they have recently upped the e-reader ante with a cheaper Nook to compete with Amazon’s Kindle line). However, I’m not so sure that your average used book store is similarly fated.

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To get a feel for the marketplace, I talked to two local book store owners yesterday. Their responses surprised me only in how completely different they were. While one of the owners was upbeat about the future of his business (“If we survived the worst economic downturn [2008-2009] since the Great Depression…” he told me), the other was completely pessimistic, bordering on fatalistic (“I think I’ll start buying lottery tickets,” he said with only a dash of sarcasm).

The first owner, “Len”, agreed with me that his business model was more sustainable than that of the chain bookstores. His shop, he assured me, provided buyers things that they can’t find at the chains or that buyers want to check out in person: out of print books, art books, children’s books, and cookbooks. While buyers can probably find these same books on Amazon or an equivalent website, at his store they could examine it and hold it in their hands before purchasing. Only my futuristic concept of “digital browsing” could destroy this business model. Additionally, when pressed about the average age of his customers, Len assured me that his average buyers were in the 35-55 age demographic. His customers aren’t dying, in other words. His final thought: Amazon may not destroy him, but it will destroy the chains.

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While Len was optimistic about his future, the other shop owner, “Richard,” sounded ready to hang it up (this after having just opened his store!). Richard didn’t once mention any of the values that his store brought to the community. When I mentioned all of the ways that his store could compete with the chains and e-readers (things that Len had already shared with me), he looked surprised. “You’re right,” he acknowledged finally. His business partner told me, more optimistically, that there will always be a market for the book itself; people want something that they can touch, feel, and smell. He may be right, at least in the near future. I wonder though if a generation of young people raised on e-readers will feel the same nostalgia for the book. Perhaps the book will be a fetish object for future hipsters, much like records are now. But that will not be enough to sustain today’s bookstores.

One thing that neither one of these men should underestimate is the book’s value as a display item. People want to show off their intellect and their possessions. They want to be judged by others for the things that they own. They’ll happily buy books they’ll never read if it earns them a moment of awe and appreciation from a visitor or friend. Can these superficial show-offs sustain a shrinking market? Time will tell.

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