The Death of Bookstores… Or Slow Suicide?

The interior of the Barnes & Noble located at ...
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Last week, Borders announced after the dismal numbers from the last quarter that they were now working to redefine their store model in an effort to boost sales. Oddly enough, it seems that their solution to lagging book sales is to carry fewer books. More precisely, they are planning on reducing the floor space dedicated to books while increasing the categorical division and labeling of them, increasing the floor space devoted to stationary and games, and dedicating a larger space to e-book sales. Most importantly, they are going to cut the number of titles carried, devoting more attention to major mainstream titles and celebrity authors.

I spent a couple of hours this Sunday browsing a nearby Barnes & Noble, and they are apparently following the same business plan. At least 20% of the floor space normally filled with bookshelves instead featured four tables with four demo Nook e-readers each, and an extra rack or two filled with decorative slip covers and carrying cases. The game section was roughly double the size, and the stationary section bled a bit further into the reduced book section.

The logic seems so simple at first: books are selling less, so stock less books. But dig a bit deeper and it all gets a bit cloudy. It is undeniable that e-book sales are on the rise, and cutting drastically into hardcover sales, meaning that more people are purchasing new releases in e-book format rather than lug the hottest new novels around in bulky hardcover format. To me, this would dictate that publishers and bookstores should reconsider their publishing strategies when it comes to new releases, perhaps eliminating hardcover prints for some titles. Instead, the major bookstore chains have decided to cut the space available to stock books, further reduce the variety of books available, and then attempt to compensate for the space lost to e-book promotional space (a market almost exclusively online to begin with) by concentrating the remaining floor space on the very mainstream titles and authors whose sales are shifting to e-books. Makes sense, right?

One of the contributing factors to the decline in book sales overlooked by those in charge at Borders and B&N is the lack of diversity in their available stock. Over half of the titles sold on Amazon are not available for purchase in these vast brick and mortar stores. People aren’t just buying online because they’re lazy, they are going where their needs are met. They go where the books are.

I remember a time not to long ago when the big bookstore chains were seeing their popularity surge. It was thrilling as a young reader to browse the isles for hours on end, discover new authors and books I had never heard stuffed in the overflowing shelves. Those days are a distant memory, however, as the corporate model and marketing streamlining have depleted the choices offered to the random browser. Display racks and extra shelf space are devoted to the mainstream authors whose work is also available at Target or Shoprite, while lesser-known titles are sacrificed to the capitalist deity of Name Recognition. Browsing the shelves will only expose you ten three copies each of the entire twenty book run of every celebrity writer on the New York Times Bestsellers List. It’s not that mainstream authors aren’t worth reading, but rather that they don’t need all the extra space to make their product known. That’s why they’re known authors. People know about them. You know?

So the business model chosen to save bookstores is the one that slowly eliminates the books. I’m sure there’s some sound reasoning in there somewhere. But it seems to me that when it comes to overall shopping experience, there is already a place you can go that not only has Books and Magazines, but DVDs and CDs, Board Games and Toys, Leather-bound Notebooks and Bronze Bookends, a full Espresso Bar, and working demos of the latest technological gadgets. It’s called a Mall. Personally, I’d love to visit a bookstore instead, but there don’t seem to be any left. At least there’s still a large selection at Amazon.

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