The future of American bookstores is uncertain

Aspiring novelist Kristen Jones says she spends most of her free time in bookstores, scanning the shelves and flipping through her favorites.

Aspiring novelist Kristen Jones says she spends most of her free time in bookstores, scanning the shelves and flipping through her favorites.

In this digital era, American bookstore owners are working harder than ever to keep from becoming a thing of the past. With Borders having recently closed their doors, large bookstore chains and independent booksellers alike are concerned about the future.

Ever since bookstore sales reached its peak of $17 billion in 2007, the industry has seen a 12 percent decrease in sales nationwide, as stated by Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. With e-books and online publishing on the rise, book publishers speculate that the demise of the American bookstore has reached an all-time high.

According to the Open Education Database, e-books received $3.2 billion of the bookselling market in 2011, and by 2016 that number is predicted to grow to nearly $10 billion, out of the predicted total U.S. consumer book market of $21 billion. The Amazon Kindle was the first to contribute to the e-book market, closely followed by Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Apple’s iPad. Now, with nearly 28 percent of American population owning an e-reader device, the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for book retailers, has seen membership drop by 600 stores since 2002.

Even in the midst of the war on booksellers, however, ABA employee Dan Cullen says there’s reason to hope for independent bookstores.

“In 2012, participating independent bookstores were up 8 percent over 2011 in terms of weekly unit sales, which is a great number” he said. “There has also been a modest increase in the number of independent bookstores around the country – another sign that things are looking up.”

This seems to be the case for BookPeople, Austin’s most popular independent bookstore. According to CEO Steve Bercu, 2012 was the best year the store has ever seen, with the highest number of sales and greatest total net profit in BookPeople’s history. The success of the store in the past several years might have something to do with the added selection of Kobo e-books for purchase, but according to Bercu, it is mainly due to the whole experience that BookPeople provides its customers when they walk through the doors.

“What we do in the bookstore is different. Unlike music, books do require a certain kind of physical approach to get a lot of what books are about,” Bercu said. “People don’t go to bookstores to only purchase something. We offer human interaction and an opportunity to talk about something you care about, assuming you care about books. That’s something that can’t happen online.”

South Congress Books, a newer establishment in Austin, is also holding its own in this digital age. John Barton, manager of the secondhand bookstore, suspects that the demand for printed books will stay the same, regardless of the presence of e-books.

The Open Education Database suggests that Borders, who just last year closed more than 600 stores after filing for bankruptcy, has been the biggest casualty for booksellers thus far. Barnes & Noble seems to have fared better, due in part to an early investment in an e-reader and online publishing platform.

But Alyssa O’Connell, an English Honors major at the University of Texas and a frequent shopper at Austin’s independent bookstores, believes that there’s nothing quite like getting your hands on a book in its physical form.

“Books are a part of history and if they are gone, we lose so much of that documentation beyond the text itself,” O’Connell said. “The actual book is historical.”

As bleak as the situation for American bookstores appears in numbers, booksellers and book buyers are remaining optimistic about what the future will bring.

“I feel really confident that independent books are by and large of continual reinvention, and they’ve shown for decades now that they are more than able to use a keen business insight as a way to adapt and change in remaining relevant to their customers,” Cullen said.

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[Written and photographed April 2013 for J 310 Reporting Words, a journalism class at the University of Texas.]

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