April 06, 2004

The passing of an era

The era of the independent bookshop is coming to an end. When they aren't forced to close by sales losses to Amazon or to Barnes&Noble, many independent bookshops die naturally when their owners retire. There isn't a new generation of booksellers to replace them. They're all working at Borders.

Soon it will all be Taco-Bell.

I remember the Chinook Bookshop, in my hometown of Colorado Springs. My family didn't live on that end of town, so we usually ended up going to the B.Dalton in the mall. But I enjoyed browsing in the Chinook. Their inventory of maps was "the largest from Chicago to the coast," and they always seemed to have strange books that the B.Dalton would never have.

Sure, the Hardy-Boys books I liked were often cheaper at the B.Dalton. The Chinook never offered discounts. Period. It was a full-service, full-price place. I browsed at the Chinook, but I bought books somewhere else. No one has any nostalgia for the low prices at the Chinook. Perhaps in this way it was most obviously a creature of the era when it started, circa 1959. Back then, wages were high enough to raise a whole family on just one. This was fortunate, because if Mom wanted to work, no one would hire her because she was a woman (and when they did, they wouldn't pay her as much because she was a woman). We've made tradeoffs since then. Mom can get a job just like Dad, but neither of them can find jobs with benefits. These days, Mom and Dad sometimes both have to work two jobs. Just to afford the discount books at Sam's Club.

Ahh, tradeoffs.

Some independent bookstores will survive, here and there, but the era of the mom-and-pop bookseller is over. The world changes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes things just change.

Posted by Carey at April 6, 2004 08:23 AM

Once upon a time, every town had its own local brewery. There were different kinds of beers everywhere you went. These local brands got squeezed out by national brands. For years, pretty much the only beers available were mass-marketed, very similar-tasting beers like Budweiser. But then microbrewing took hold in a niche market, providing high quality beer in regional markets for enthusiasts.

Independent booksellers aren't dying, they're looking for their niche. Maybe we'll go through some time where the only real options are Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but independent booksellers will strike back, with a vengeance. In fact, it could closely parallel my beer example. Independent stores might find an excellent niche in selling hard-to-find and rare books for enthusiasts, or by partnering with vanity presses to sell quality hardbound copies of special-interest, electronically published materials. Don't despair!

Posted by: Mark Ashton at April 6, 2004 01:09 PM

Excellent example! History sometimes repeats itself, and some things that die come back to life...

Posted by: Carey at April 7, 2004 10:28 AM