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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Closing of the American Bookstore

I've been hearing this sob story lately about the decline of --insert a teary eye here--the decline of the American Book Store.  Just a few years ago B Dalton Books closed its last store.  There was talk of the decline of reading in our country.  Then, last year, Borders closed its last store.  A judgmental finger was pointed at Amazon as the leading cause of their downfall.  Now, we hear of Barnes & Noble stores being selectively shut down.  The end of the Brick-and-Mortar bookstore is now considered to be a near inevitability.
Books-a-Million Superstore, 1999
  Independent bookstores are in even greater peril.  First shoved aside by the large chain stores, the few that have been able to withstand such pressure are now collapsing under the competition from online sites like Amazon.  There is great weeping and gnashing of teeth over this.  We are meant to pause, hang our heads low, and feel a bit of guilt over our complicity in the demise of these once great bastions of literature, these outposts of culture in our society.  Their magnanimous, selfless attempts to keep our society supplied with the power of the written word have been betrayed by the selfish, greedy public who would have benefited most from their altruistic efforts.
  To quote Colonel Sherman T Potter: Bull-Pucky!
  Allow me to disagree.
  If you know me at all, you know I am a capitalist at heart, and I do not begrudge any company from making money from its chosen business.  If the people are willing to pay for goods or services, then they ought to pay away, and any company should be allowed to pocket the profit.  But there are some things about bookstores people really ought to know.  Things that are, if not disturbing, at least change the image of this sad demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores.
  To quote Bill Nye the Science Guy: Consider the Following.
  Bookstores have an odd view of their inventory.  They seem to feel that they are entitled to stock their shelves at no cost or risk to their pocketbooks.  It's a great idea.  Who wouldn't want to do business like this?  Bookstores look at it like this: they are willing to stock books on a shelf, as long as they only have to pay for the book after it has sold.  So they accept a book for their shelves, and invoice it out to the supplier, which essentially means they agree to pay for it in about ninety days or so.  They might do this as a consignment, which is a more honest way of admitting they won't pay for the book unless it sells, but either way, the book is not paid for during those ninety days.  At the end of this period, the books are returned, which nullifies the payment.  A nice little trick here is to return the book on the 89th day, wherein the supplier then must accept the books back, and often by agreement, the books must be destroyed.  Now the bookstore is free to order more of these same books to be printed, and they'll go on the shelf again for another ninety day stint.  (Imagine what this does to the cost of books.  Or did you think the supplier/publisher takes the loss on this deal?)
  This sounds like something out of a Woody Allen movie.  (That may be giving them too much credit.  It might be more accurate to say it sounds like something out of a Three Stooges Movie.)
  Basically, the bookstore has stocked its shelves for zero cost, and they are free to return the books at no charge.  A pretty sweet deal.
The Paris Equivalent to Barnes & Noble:
Gilbert Joseph on Blvd Saint-Michel 
  Now on top of this the bookstores demand a 50-60% discount on the titles, so that they make at least fifteen dollars off a thirty dollar hardback new-release.  Remember that the next time you're thrilled when they knock off 10% for your membership discount.  A real sacrifice on the part of the bookstore.
  Just these two practices in themselves make you wonder how poorly run a store needs to be to lose money.
  But remember what I said earlier:  If the people are willing to pay for goods or services, then they ought to pay away, and any company should be allowed to pocket the profit.  And there's the rub.  The paying public has been educated by evil people like Amazon and they are learning they don't have to kowtow to bookstores anymore.  The increased variety available online has a lot to do with this.  And here again is a brick-and-mortar bookstore sin come back to haunt them.
  In the quest to reduce risk (and overhead), traditional bookstores have joined with the larger publishing houses to target the sale of particular books.  Unable to stock all the books that are being published, and eager to sell as many books without cramming their shelves with too many different titles, bookstores have set up massive displays of new releases and helped push particular titles, manipulating people into buying one book over another.  We see a huge display as we enter a store, see the big posters that declare this new book is the book of the year, and we eagerly snatch it up.
  Well, we used to do this.  Until someone taught us a better way.
  Yeah, you know who I mean.  Those jerks at Amazon.
  Through their algorithms, Amazon has found a way to help readers learn about books that might interest them by analyzing their purchasing and browsing history and then suggesting titles to the reader.  If you've spent any time on Amazons site, you'll soon discover that they are very good at helping you find books you never would have found before, and most of them are a perfect match for your reading tastes.
  Added to this new variety is the ability to find most books as a used book, which Amazon is only too happy to help you purchase.  Most of the time you can find a used book for around four dollars (which includes shipping).  In our troubled economic times, this is of great significance to book lovers, since we cannot keep ourselves from buying books, and most of us are not up in the tax bracket that President Obama is so eager to pillage.
  Oddly enough, some of the criticism aimed at Amazon has been that they are undermining the publishing industry, making it nearly impossible for authors to make a living as writers.  It has even been suggested this is un-American, as if they are going to destroy the artistic vein of our great country.  But to make this suggestion would also point the finger at public libraries all over the country, which are far more aggressively undermining the publishing industry by allowing everyone to share a book.  If public libraries haven't killed the publishing industry since Andrew Carnegie opened up 1,689 libraries across the United States in the early 1900s, then I seriously doubt Amazon will be able to.  (Don't think the library is agressive?  What about their guerrilla efforts to bring free books to the people by use of their mobile anti-bookstore weapon--the Bookmobile?  One of which I saw just the other day.  I had no idea they were still around.  Man, I loved climbing on board the bookmobile when I was a little five-year-old.  But I digress...)
  As a matter of fact, I've spent more money on books since Amazon has opened up than I ever did when bookstores and libraries were my only option.  Most of the time, to save money, I'd just go to the library to get the book I wanted.  Now, I never use the library.  I usually buy my books, from both Amazon and my local bookstore.
  I guess I'm just tired of hearing how evil Amazon is, and how sad it is that bookstores are being run out of business by them.  In my opinion, what we are really seeing are the results of an industry that has been overly greedy in its desire to protect and increase its profits.  Their customers have been educated enough to discover there is a better way.
An Independent Bookstore that has
managed to stay in business far longer
than B Dalton ever did.
  Do I mourn the loss of brick-and-mortar bookstores?  No.  I'll miss them.  I've always loved to wander their aisles, browsing the titles, pulling out each book, paging through it, wishing I could buy every book that caught my fancy.  But you know what, I do the same thing at Amazon, and though I cannot pick up each book by hand, I can browse through them, and even better, Amazon helps me find similar books far faster.  There are trade-offs that make it worthwhile.
  So the next time you feel sorry for a bookstore chain that is closing, think of all the books that were destroyed in order to allow that bookstore to make a profit.
  As for the small, independent bookstores, I'm not sure what can be done for them.  If the public cannot afford their mark-up, it is not the public's fault, nor is it the fault of the bookstore's.  Unless people are just willing to donate money to keep the store open, which has actually happened in some communities (efforts that I wholeheartedly applaud), perhaps there is nothing that can be done.  Our society is evolving, and some changes may just be inevitable.
  As for now, I have a small stack of books waiting to be read.  Some of them I bought new at my local Books-a-Million, some I bought either new or used at Amazon.  I also have used books that were bought at our local Goodwill.  I am eager to read all of these books.  No matter where I bought them, they're still a joy to read.
  (While I recognize the dynamic changes the eBook has wrought, I'll leave that subject, as well as the emotionally charged subject of self-published books, to another post.  Full disclosure: I am not a representative of Amazon, although I do have books available with them online.  Said books can also be bought online at Barnes & Noble or ordered in the stores.  I have books for sale in several Independent bookstores in the New Orleans area.  One more bit of information to disclose:  I've done my part to keep bookstores open.  Stop by my house.  You'll see you have to walk around the stacks of books that clutter it from one end of the house to the other.  The amount of books I've bought is somewhat ridiculous!)

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