Monday, July 16, 2018

Musing about bookstores.

It's interesting how people conflate the opening of stores with the success of stores. One does not mean the other. Stores are always opening in downtown Bend--but think about that statement, "Stores are always opening in downtown Bend." We have a finite number of spaces that are usually full. So where are these new stores opening?

Apparently, when Amazon came along around 1995 there were roughly 3300 indie bookstores. The number dropped by 43% after that. When Kindle came along, everyone predicted the imminent demise of all brick and mortar stores.

But indie stores have increased by 34% in the last decade or so (probably more since the stats end in 2015.)

I'll just say this. That's too soon to predict success. Yes, stores have opened, but does it mean they are making money?

Just as an aside--I've heard figures of something like 7500 indie bookstores before Barnes and Noble and Borders came along, so that would represent an even bigger drop. As I mentioned yesterday, the big chain bookstores are more of a menace to indies than Amazon is. The fact that indies are making a resurgence while Amazon grows ever stronger and Borders crashes and B & N struggles--I don't think that is a coincidence.

What worries me about all these new indie bookstores is that most of them are following the ABA model. That gives them a certain consistency, sure. Which to me is boring. I can walk into an ABA model bookstore and almost predict what I'm going to see.

It seems to me they are weighted heavily toward women, heavily toward literary, and heavily toward new titles.

There is nothing wrong with that on its own, but I think most of them are missing a bet on backstock, on classics and cult books, and especially--and this drives me nuts, they underutilized the genre market.  Usually a couple of shelves of SF and fantasy, a bit more on mysteries, almost nothing in romance and westerns and horror.

I sell genre more than literary, I sell established books more than new books. Since my clientele for books are mostly drop-ins, often tourists, I think this is telling. That means if you take a random sample of the reading public, they will gravitate toward these titles. I usually have several of the new bestsellers on the display rack--more to say, "We're a real bookstore" than anything else--and while those books sell, they don't sell at any greater frequency than backstock.

Personally, when I look at the "best-seller" lists I see a lot of junk--junk that is available at Walmart and Costco for half price, or on Amazon, or any number of places.

The indie stores pride themselves on "curating" their selection, but if they are all pulling their titles off the ABA lists, how is that curation?

The second thing you see recommended for indie stores is lots of events and signings and especially--it seems to be almost a requirement now--a coffee shop.

I've expressed my doubts about these goals before. These things seem costly and time-consuming and space and energy consuming--for what? For books that may or may not sell. Believe me--burnout is a huge danger. Spending all your money on employees in order to gain more business can be a never-ending rat race.

The same time and energy can be used toward figuring out what books WILL sell. Spending your time talking to customers or cleaning your store or--well, just about anything to make your existing space better. The money can be used on backstock.

But even if you do these extra things, bookstores need to make sure they've done the basics of carrying a decent stock of books first.

That's what I've noticed is the lack of inventory in a lot of indie stores. (I have an excuse--I have limited space and the books aren't my primary object, but nevertheless I pack my store as deep as I can get it.)

So these are contrary views, and they be construed as negative, but I think people need to listen to th downsides as well as the upsides.

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