People love bookstores, but not enough to buy the books ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
To describe the woes of bricks-and-mortar bookstores is to join the dirge-singing chorus. Everyone knows the tune: sales at bookstores have fallen because buyers are ordering books online or downloading them to e-readers. Bookstores may be great places to browse and linger, but online is where the deals are. In the latest chapter in the Borders saga, the bookstore chain has agreed to sell its assets for $215m to Direct Brands, a media-distribution company owned by Najafi, a private-equity firm, which would also assume an additional $220m in liabilities. This will serve as the opening bid for the company’s bankruptcy-court auction, scheduled for July 19th.
Whatever happens at the auction will dictate the fate of the bookseller, which has already closed more than a third of its stores. Because Direct Brands is an online- and catalogue-based distributor of music, DVDs and books (such as the mail-order Book of the Month club), some speculate that a deal with Najafi will do little to keep the remaining bookstores open. Rather, the company will probably see value in the Borders distribution network and liquidate most everything else. Regardless, the story doesn’t look good for store employees and their dwindling patrons. (The company, which employs more than 11,000 people, has racked up more than $191m in losses since seeking bankruptcy protection in February, according to the Wall Street Journal.)
Like Barnes & Noble, Borders has a reputation for being a brutish corporate behemoth that has been edging out more humane book-selling competition for decades. Isn’t this just a story of comeuppance? But as we noted in March, these colossal book empires have also played an important role as often lone bookstores in small American towns and suburbs, where readers may otherwise be limited to what can be found at Wal-Mart. A friend and former colleague who grew up in Texas often bristled when New Yorkers kvetched about stores like Borders. When one of these multi-storey bookstores moved into his home-town, he couldn’t believe his luck. Urban centres can be counted on to provide affable places to buy tomes, flirt with bookworms and listen to visiting authors. Elsewhere it is stores like Borders that have provided a rare, atmospheric and pressure-free space for bibliophiles, often in strip malls next to a Home Depot.
But alas, this precious “pressure-free” element may be the problem. Now that these bookstores are closing, local papers are lamenting the loss even as they profile customers who never quite managed to open their wallets. A recent article in the Elk Grove Patch, for example, considered the precarious fate of its local Borders bookstore—the only non-religious bookstore in the Californian city, just south of Sacramento. Yet the locals quoted are perfect examples of the problem:
"I just come in here to have coffee and say hi to my friends," said John Vega, 73, a former Marine and amateur novelist who lives in Elk Grove. "I wouldn't buy a book here."
"People come in and they take a $25 book, read the whole thing and put it back on the shelf," he said.
Then there’s Emmanuel Evans, a 19-year-old “comic-book aficionado who says he's burned through at least 50 books while crouching in the store's cozy aisles.”
Nashville, Tennessee, is still reeling from several bookstore closings, including a Borders and the more beloved Davis-Kidd. The result, as reported in the Nashville Scene, is an “object lesson in how truly awful it is to live in a town where used bookstores and the pitiful offerings of Books-a-Million are all we have.” The problem, however, is that no one seems willing to buy full-price books anymore. Campaigns to get people to buy books from their local bookstores—such as “Save Bookstores Day” on June 25th—miss the point. While there is demand for real bricks-and-mortar places to gather, drink coffee and read new books, such places can’t exist if the market can’t accommodate them.
Besides coffee, access to Wi-Fi and the occasional yoga mat, what will people pay for to enable a bricks-and-mortar bookstore? Could independent stores charge membership fees, which grant access to books at slightly lower prices? Would a corporate-sponsorship model work? (For example, Eli Lilly could sponsor “Books by authors on Prozac” month at the local haunt.) Perhaps bookstores could become tax-subsidised places where people can browse and linger, but only borrow the books for limited periods of time—what the hell, let’s call them libraries.
At any rate, the market is squeezing out a meaningful public space. It will be interesting to see what fills the void these bookstores leave behind.