Is The Physical Bookstore A Thing Of The Past?

from the may-finally-be-getting-there dept

It's been talked about for over a decade now, but are we finally reaching the tipping point for physical bookstores? Some are pointing out that Amazon's continued success in online sales represents an element of "creative destruction" for physical retailers, and a NY Times piece notes that plenty of bookstores are shutting down -- including some of the big name brands, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble.

What may be most interesting in the NY Times article, though, is that the blame isn't necessarily placed at online retailers directly -- but on the fact that online sites have made it much easier to resell used books. Thus, the argument goes, the market is now flooded with used books that individuals are selling out of their bedrooms, meaning that it rarely makes sense for anyone to pay full price for a new book anymore. It's an interesting argument -- and it's the type of argument we've seen made against used book sales in the past, and more recently that video game makers have been making concerning used video game sales.

However, it's not clear if this is really true. Past studies have shown that an active second hand market helps to boost the sales of new goods, because it makes those goods more valuable to folks who recognize they'll be able to resell them on the second hand market later. That may not be helpful to physical bookstore retailers, but those retailers have to learn to adjust with the times as well. Obviously, just selling books is going to make less and less sense, but we've seen retailers that have worked hard to turn their stores into destinations, where there were good reasons to go and buy stuff, rather than just being a physical version of what you could get online. If bookstores are unwilling to make those changes then is it really a huge loss?


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  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 29th, 2008 @ 10:17pm

    I hope not. While I can be sure to get exactly what I want when I go to Amazon or another online retailer, part of the thing I like about physical bookstores is that you can browse through while searching, and have a good chance of finding something else worth reading. While I now that there are suggestion features on the online stores, I almost never use them, because while online, I like things fast, and go directly to the books instead of strolling down the aisles.

     

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    wrk, Dec 29th, 2008 @ 10:37pm

    Powell's

    I wouldn't call the bookstore dead. I love going to the bookstore and even though I can get all of the same books from amazon or bn.com and I can get previews of some of the pages online it just don't replace the experience of going to the bookstore. I was reminded of this again when I visited Powell's books in Portland, OR, and I spent much more time than I had planned browsing through the store and finding lots of interesting books.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 29th, 2008 @ 10:43pm

    The Bookstore of the Future

    Obviously, just selling books is going to make less and less sense, but we've seen retailers that have worked hard to turn their stores into destinations, where there were good reasons to go and buy stuff, rather than just being a physical version of what you could get online.
    This is the way my local bookstore is. They have all kinds of stuff other than just books for sale. It's called "Walmart".

     

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    Mike (profile), Dec 29th, 2008 @ 10:55pm

    Re: Powell's

    I was reminded of this again when I visited Powell's books in Portland, OR, and I spent much more time than I had planned browsing through the store and finding lots of interesting books.

    I'm a fan of Powell's and have spent plenty of time there, but the article notes that Powell's is struggling and has asked workers to take more unpaid time off... So, apparently Powell's isn't quite the solution either.

     

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    Dayna, Dec 29th, 2008 @ 11:26pm

    Bookstores

    While I love bookstores, I find it much easier, not to mention more economical, to shop from my computer. One site that I love is Paperbackswap. It is like having my own bookstore 24/7, with almost 3 Million audio, hardback, and paperback books to choose from. Sorry if I sound like an ad, I just love spending time there and buying books for just $3.45.

     

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  6.  
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    DaveL, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 12:34am

    Sorry, I have to agree that the bookstore is a dying business model.

    There was a place in Chicago called Transitions, the finest bookstore I ever had the opportunity to peruse. An amazing cafe, great coffee & snax, free wifi etc. etc. etc.

    This place was so cool, they would even have Tibetan monks come and do a Mandela in the front of the store every year (the owner was a Buddhist). They also had talks by authors, book signings and all sorts of events.

    They had books on everything from alcoholism and recovery through glassblowing(!?) to Zoroastrianism. If it wasn't on the shelves you could still have it in a few days.

    Even with the community of ardent readers, friends and buyers (of which I was one) they had AND the online sales they still ended up closing.

    I personally feel that the city of Chicago is lessened by it's loss.

    I talked to the owners when they were closing, it was the lack of profit margin that drove them to the ground. They got squeezed by the publishers, they got squeezed by Amazons pricing. We wont even talk about paying worthwhile employees (and they were all truly amazing).

    Sorry, but I believe that if a place that "just plain cool" can't make it there is no hope for the bookstore as a business.

    Howard and Gayle, (the owners) Chicago Misses you!
    Sorry to get all emo on the rest of you...

    Dave

     

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    rowanh, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 1:08am

    I limit my on-line book purchases to (a) technical books and (b) difficult-to-obtain second-hand books. For the rest I find the need to browse the bookshelf an essential.

    'Twill be a sad day if Amazon replaces Hay-on-Wye, the Mecca for all good bibliophiles ...

     

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    Blatant Coward, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 2:04am

    "This is the way my local bookstore is. They have all kinds of stuff other than just books for sale. It's called "Walmart"."

    Those of us that like to read something else than christian books and "The Babysitters Club" just threw up in our mouths a little.

     

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    Mr Big Content, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 2:09am

    Shut Them Down

    File-sharing networks have been destructive enough to people trying to make an honest living from audio and visual Intellectual Property, but these second-hand book-sharing networks have been just as destructive on those trying to make a living from cellulose-based IP. This whole P2P (paper-to-paper) thing is getting out of hand--we need to persuade the booksellers to adopt a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" policy: anybody caught buying things from them three times should be banned from ever coming back as a customer. That will teach them.

     

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    SteveD, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 2:19am

    The romatacism around paper books will likely keep the business model viable for a few years yet. It makes sense that the number of retailers will be reduced in line with falling demand, but then a lot of retailers are going to be hit hard over the next year.

     

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    Paul Stout (profile), Dec 30th, 2008 @ 2:49am

    Is The Physical Bookstore A Thing Of The Past?

    No, not really... More often than not I find that Amazon, and most other on-line book stores, seldom have the books I'm looking for, especially in hard cover books, unless it is a recently published book. To get them I always end up back at the book store, usually Barnes & Noble, ordering it through the store catalogs. The other reason I think book stores will never die out is that, while it's very convenient to shop on-line if you're in a hurry, it can never replace the pleasure of perusing the bookshelves and reading bits and pieces of books looking for new authors. I guess you have to be a "reader" to appreciate that, but you will never get that experience on-line. It all depends on how much of a hurry you're in. I'm not, so I enjoy putting in an hour or two a month working my way through the book shelves.

     

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  12.  
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    Mark Regan, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 3:28am

    I don't know about you...but

    When I go to a bookstore, I feel like I'm in a museum looking at a bunch of dinosaur bones.

    I've got the feeling that I've seen it all someplace. I pick up the magazines and newspapers and books, sure enough, I read that in Wikipedia, or on Google News.

    It's just like when I turn on ABC News or CNN with my parents. At the beginning of EACH story I tell my parents what the story is going to be (which of course I read a few hours earlier on Google News.)

    A book is released, and before it hits the book store, I've read the reviews. By the time it's AT the bookstore, I've read the excerpts and synopsis and drafts and teasers and so much of the copy I know whether or not I want to buy it (and usually don't).

    Now, I get any worthwhile books at the used bookstore or online. Same with worthwhile music (except a few "gotta haves" from Hayley Westenra or Celtic Thunder.)

    Pretty soon there will be a shakeout in radio and television -- FCC licenses will be devalued, and newspapers and magazines will fold. Internet sources will multiply and compilation services will be more essential.

    Then folks like me will soon need to get brain implants to hook our brains directly to the internet (ala Matrix) to get the rush by eliminating the need to use a keyboard and screen and mouse -- all those peripherals just slow me down.

     

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  13.  
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    Twinrova, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 4:04am

    Online reselling isn't the issue.

    There has always been an outlet for people to sell their used books and the internet had nothing to do with it. In fact, many resell stores seem to do a much better job than those selling new books.

    Here in Indianapolis, the big reseller is "Half Price Books", which has several chains around the area. While the "big name" stores are closing, these are thriving.

    The biggest problem with the chains is, well, they're chains. Offering huge amounts of goods, one would have to determine just how many of these goods actually move. If there are 24 different art books, one is more likely to sell than another. Carrying these costs money, which is why you'll often see these types of books go on sale much faster than others.

    There's also the high price of books to consider, as many people begin to find alternative sources to reduce costs. Unlike many other items, a book doesn't retain its "value" to the owner once they've read it. This "value" belongs to the next reader, who will be dismayed at buying a "used" book for "new" prices.*

    You can also add to the argument paperbacks also take a lion's share away from "new" as many people will often wait for the paperback version to come out.

    Adding cafes, theater, or other venues isn't going to help bookstores much, as these also tend to have high costs of operation. The sad truth is that these bookstores aren't dying from competition as much as they are from their own inventory.

    To add in a spin, you can expect to see more brick & mortar stores closing in the future, especially when fuel prices return to $4+/gal. I can't imagine the costs involved in shipping items to all these chains, especially when the "turn around" from the profits isn't much to cover the increased cost of fuel without increased cost to the consumer.

    Having a central distribution center seems to be more common, and the best way to do this would be selling more items via the internet, rather than spending money on ads and distribution costs to stores.

    I've noticed, this year, that online sales are becoming much more competitive than their brick & mortar counterparts. This trend will continue as more companies would rather sell via the internet than operating stores to help reduce operating costs.

    A double-edged sword this move is, as there are some items which just require a visit to the store (clothing, for one) which no online venue can replace.

    Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other large retailers can easily survive by doing what Amazon did in the first place: centralize distribution and ship via the internet.

    Of course, it's going to be extremely difficult to compete against Amazon, but it can be done.

    *I could never understand this concept of "new" and "used" over books. If I've read a book, and the binder shows I've read it, doesn't "new" still apply as it's the story that's selling, not the actual binder? Boggles my mind how people freak out that "new" means an "undamaged" binder when "new" should mean the story isn't something they've read.

     

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  14.  
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    SC, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 4:16am

    No chance....

    Here in the UK the big bookstores are trying (again) to launch e-book readers. (Made by Sony)

    The reader itself costs £199 and any books downloaded from the shops website come with DRM to prevent piracy.

    My thought is that £200 pounds buys a LOT of books and more to the point books that I can share with friends and family with no restrictions/DRM.

    Until the whole DRM thing is scrapped I'm going to be buying my books the old fashioned way.

     

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  15.  
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    Haywood, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 4:52am

    The real truth is there are gazillions of books

    I've recently began reading pretty much on full day per week. My consumption is about a book every week or two. I started at a 1/2 price type store, & got 3 hardback books for $30. Then I looked at Goodwill & got 3 hardback books for $6. The selection was good, and there are stores like that everywhere with different books. Even the lowly charity and thrift shops are full of books. Since I can't tell the difference between a $2 book and a $30 book, why should I support the more expensive option.

    The problem is as I see it: over production. They want to price it like a scarce good, but on any books that have been in the stream for a few years, the sheer volume of the used books drives the price toward zero

     

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    Ima Fish, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 6:37am

    "It's an interesting argument -- and it's the type of argument we've seen made against used book sales in the past, and more recently that video game makers have been making concerning used video game sales."

    It's also used against used music sales. It's also completely asinine and anyone who agrees with it it lacks any understanding how markets work.

    If used books became popular, demand would rise, and because new books are not being sold, supplies would decrease. Thus, prices for used books would rise. When used book prices rise, new books would became a better value which would increase the sales of new books.

    It's simply impossible for a used book market to hurt the market for new books. And the same is true of used DVD, games, and CDs.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 6:51am

    Cool? Once again, the consequence of decoupling is pretty ugly. Borders is a perfect example. They have little lounges, they have various coffee drinks.

    And they have a terrible selection of stuff I want to read. It's all Oprah-backed bestseller _The Shack_ nonsense and shiny coffeetable books.

    Amazon is great if I want a specific book. Lousy if I want to browse. The recommendation engine is infuriating at times.

     

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  18.  
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    Caleb, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 7:39am

    Well, seeing as though I just bought 55$ of used books, about 25 of them, and got 5 new books from amazon, for 85$, it's not really a contest, IMHO. There is an atmosphere in book stores, it just doesn't exist elsewhere. Besides, I'll always discover more books I like in used stores then online.

     

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  19.  
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    Michael Long, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 8:05am

    Audiobooks

    A great many of my "book" purchases over the last year or so have come from listening to audiobooks. I can do so while driving (great for trips), working out, and even while eating. An Audible subscription also lets me get quite of a few of the latest "hardbacks" for just $11 each.

    Technical books are different, as those I tend to purchase online and as PDFs. And as with another commenter above, RSS feeds and the internet have pretty much killed my magazine habit.

    Pretty soon ebooks will take hold, and bookstores will become just another specialty store, with art books and a few others that the electronic world can't do justice.

     

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  20.  
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    Noel Nadur, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 8:37am

    Yeah well

    I hate myself for it, but I go into bookstores and sit down and read all the magazines, browse the aisles for interesting books and look at them, and then order them from the Library, which is free. I can ever order books from the library online and the library emails me when they are available for pick-up. Why buy? Even from Amazon. The only books that I want to re-read and refer to are usually reference books. The books I really want to actually buy and keep, I then buy on Amazon, but that is rare (maybe a cookbook).

     

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  21.  
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    Tony, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 8:48am

    used books

    "the blame isn't necessarily placed at online retailers directly -- but on the fact that online sites have made it much easier to resell used books."

    And just totally ignore the fact that used bookstores were a thriving business before Amazon & co. Used books? There are the stores, library sales, goodwill & salvation army, etc.

    Somehow, THAT didn't impact the book retailers.

    Could it possibly be that people just aren't reading as much?

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 9:12am

    Re: The Bookstore of the Future

    People with a sense of dignity and responsibility go out of the way to avoid Walmart.

     

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  23.  
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    Petréa Mitchell, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 9:20am

    The Powell's model

    The trouble with the explanations being offered is that they're describing a large part of what Powell's has always done. Buying tons of used books, many of them directly from individuals, and shelving them right alongside new editions is how they've done business since forever. So if they're hurting along with everyone else, I'm more inclined to believe it's some combination of changing reading habits and a really crappy economy.

    (My own ground-level datum: I've been buying fewer books the last couple years because I've become a volunteer reader for a local literary award, and so spend 3-4 months of the year primarily reading books that I don't have to pay for. The award committee then sells the reading copies to Powell's after everyone's done with them, to help fund the award.)

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 9:25am

    Re: The Bookstore of the Future

    The day that Walmart becomes my bookstore is the day I let myself slip free of this mortal coil.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 9:28am

    Re:

    One wonders: if they were so cool and had such true fans, why didn't they appeal to their friends for donations or fundraising, rather than closing?

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 9:29am

    Re:

    More than a little...

     

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  27.  
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    gene_cavanaugh, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 9:30am

    Online bookstores

    Michael makes an excellent point. Where I live, we have a "Books, Inc." store conveniently located in a central location. Next door is "Book Buyers", obviously a used book store. Books, Inc. specializes in the newest stuff, with a coffee shop and easy chairs, and almost every time I stop in to browse, I buy something. I can't really afford to buy all I would like, but Book Buyers, a few steps away, will buy the leftovers and enable me to buy more new stuff. Since each shop narrowly concentrates on what they do best, they are doing quite well, even in the current economic environment.

     

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  28.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 30th, 2008 @ 9:33am

    The biggest issue that Amazon has, in my opinion, is that you can't really browse -- they have recommendations, and "other customers bought...", but it's not really the same.

    That being said, if the biggest selling point that brick-and-mortar bookstores have is their browsability, they really need to take more care of their shelves and indexing. I was Christmas shopping in no fewer that 4 bookstores this season, and the shelves were all in disarray. aside from the general sections (fiction, non-fiction, history, etc) there was little rhyme or reason to them.

     

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  29.  
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    Mike (profile), Dec 30th, 2008 @ 10:43am

    Re: Online reselling isn't the issue.

    There has always been an outlet for people to sell their used books and the internet had nothing to do with it. In fact, many resell stores seem to do a much better job than those selling new books.

    I disagree. While there have always been used bookstores, they were generally smaller, and much more focused. The fact that anyone can now resell books has *tremendously* expanded the market of used books.

     

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  30.  
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    a shepherd in wolves clothing, Dec 31st, 2008 @ 12:34am

    VIRTUAL BOOKSTORE

    I truly hope not! I love to brows and feel the books and get a sense of the store I visit. Old used books are the best, new books will do in a pinch.

    asiwc

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 1st, 2009 @ 1:04pm

    Re: Re:

    One wonders: if they were so cool and had such true fans, why didn't they appeal to their friends for donations or fundraising, rather than closing?
    It takes more than a few fans to keep such places in business. The unwashed masses just go to Walmart instead.

     

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  32.  
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    Arko-Zakus, Jan 4th, 2009 @ 3:02am

    Re: Re: Powell's

    "I'm a fan of Powell's and have spent plenty of time there"

    That does not help them stay in business, unless you also spend plenty of money there, too.

     

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  33.  
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    fallendragon, Jan 24th, 2009 @ 4:08am

    what you can afford

    I am constantly buying secondhand books for charity shops in the Uk. Not only am i satisfying my habit for reading material, but am giving to good causes. But this habit is also beneficial to bookshops. I often will buy a used book by an author I haven't previously read because it only costs 50pence and hope for the best. If i enjoy it I will then look out for that author in a high street retailer and pay the RRP. The same with music.

     

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  34.  
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    Bradley F., Jul 19th, 2011 @ 9:12pm

    Reading is a freedom, a choice. Now we are losing our chance to choose paper or plastic. With the Nook and Kindle starting to dominate the book-business, book readers are being pushed into a corner and being pick of everything they once had. I don't want to have to say that having a book on a bookshelf is a thing of the past. I still want to be able to walk into a bookstore and feel at home, to feel safe, and of course to enjoy the smell of starbucks and brand-new books.

     

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