As a serious book lover and collector, and someone who has been a bookseller, a publisher, and an author, I have always been intrigued by where people shop for books and why. Of course each of us behaves based on a unique combination of preferences, desires, and biases. So what works for me might not work for you. But here is my take:
First, do I prefer online booksellers or bookstores?
For me, they offer two very different and equally useful experiences. Clearly online can be very convenient if you live far away from bookstores, are incapacitated, or just too busy to get to a bookstore. This convenience would not have been possible without UPS and FedEx, so they get some of the credit as well. Price and selection also come into play. And online booksellers have made huge strides in making their sites easy to browse, recommending other books, keeping track of your wish lists and prior purchases, and so on. It is not hard to come up with great reasons to buy books online.
But if I really want to “scan the universe,” nothing beats a real bookstore. Only in the Seminary Co-op Bookstore on Chicago’s South Side can I walk in, look at their main display table and their “new arrivals” walls and know what the topics of conversation are in American academia. Only by walking into a well-merchandised bookstore can I grasp “what’s selling, what are people talking about” at one glance. Only by checking out one of the world’s great architecture bookstores, such as Hennessey and Ingalls in Santa Monica or William Stout in San Francisco, can I know in an instant which architects are hot, which cities and buildings are the talk of the profession. (Much to their shame, Chicago and her architectural community just let the great Prairie Avenue Bookshop go out of business.)
With an experienced eye, I can wander through any well-merchandised bookstore and learn what is important to that community, what are the key areas of local study, and which books within a category are the best-sellers. What’s new and what’s old. Most of these things could be accomplished at an online bookselling site, but not nearly as quickly or effectively.
But most important, no online bookselling site makes it so easy for me to stumble across some book I did not know I was interested in – or even that someone had written a book on the subject. I think this kind of serendipitous experience is critically important to developing and maintaining a strong brain. And to an educated society.
For these reasons, I spend about half my book budget in bookstores and about half online.
I would add that there are two more reasons I want to keep bricks-and-mortar retailers in business – 1) if I need a book right now, I want them to be in business to meet that need; and 2) I believe that paying sales tax is an important way of financing my state and city. Particularly here in Texas where I live, I think I get an outstanding deal for my 8% or so. I think we need more people and enterprises willing to pay taxes, in addition to mail order sales and not-for-profit enterprises which do not pay their full share of the cost of government services.
Lastly, I believe bookstores are a wonderful place to hang out, to run into people, especially for young people. Bookstores are an uplifting environment. They’re as important to our educational system as our schools and universities, PBS, and the National Geographic Society. So let’s keep them in business.
[I also have to add that Barnes & Noble .com and Amazon have both gone downhill in the quality of their shipping. The share of books that arrive dinged or bumped from Amazon has risen dramatically, especially out of their Lexington, KY distribution center. They are cutting corners on the quantity and quality of the packaging. In addition, Amazon is much more frequently out of stock on books than they used to be. At the same time, the bookstore chains have cut inventories, especially at Borders. On a positive side, Barnes & Noble .com has a great selection of textbooks – their parent company is an expert in this area – and you can return any B&N.com purchase at their stores, a significant advantage over Amazon. You can also look up store availability of titles at B&N’s and Borders’ websites.]
Ebooks vs. paper and ink?
Paper paper paper! Kindle and their competitors are making big strides, and they are nice and portable. Sooner or later I will own one. But at this time few old books are available as ebooks; I can’t read books full of color; I can’t get the most out of illustrated or photo books, or graphs and charts; I can’t do my scanning system as well or as fast because I can’t stick 10 fingers into the pages; I can’t enjoy oversized books as much; and I can’t touch, lift, organize, admire and yes – even smell – e books.
Next – new bookstores or used bookstores?
Most of us have to make this choice, but if you live in Portland you can shop the wonderful Powell’s City of Books and have the best of both worlds. In my case, many of the books I want are long out of print so I have no choice but to seek used books. Because they have such an incredible selection, much greater than other online used and rare booksellers, my main source for older books is www.abebooks.com.
In the old days, if I had a bibliography on a subject and I wanted to find a bunch of the old titles listed, or learn about a prior era, my best shot was to go to a great used bookstore and rummage around. If I went to a huge used bookstore like the Strand in New York, or even Half-Price’s flagship store in Dallas, I might find 10-20% of the titles on my list. With abebooks, I hit more like 70-90%. It is one of the greatest innovations in education in the last 50 years, and I want to make sure they and their thousands of participating dealers prosper, including used bookstores and rare book dealers all over the planet. (Abebooks has been acquired by Amazon but I have not noticed a lot of changes since the acquisition.)
And I don’t have to mention that you can often save a lot of money buying used books, even titles that are still in print. Books are one of the few products in our society which maintain their value over time – even over dozens of years if printed on quality paper. If taken care of, they may not depreciate much from repeated ownership and handling. Like a car, most of the price drop happens as soon as you take it home from the store.
Lastly, chains versus independents?
You won’t be surprised to know that I love bookstore chains, being the guy who helped start one of the first chains of big bookstores. But keep in mind I started the chain because I loved big bookstores with big selections of books thirty years ago, rather than loving big bookstores because I helped to create them.
Step back with me to the bookselling world of the 1960s. While there were selected great independent stores around the US, it was a very spotty situation. In many American cities, the best bookstore in town – defined by the number of books they carried – was the local B. Dalton bookstore, or their sister stores called Pickwick in California. The other large mall-based bookstore chain, Waldenbooks, usually carried fewer titles, yet in dozens of cities and neighborhoods Waldenbooks was the best bookstore around.
In this environment, in 1982, my colleagues and I started creating stores called BOOKSTOP and BOOKSTAR, first in Texas, then in Florida, Louisiana, and California. We carried thousands more books than any other chain, and discounted them to boot. As a result many small publishing companies and non-best-selling authors saw the light of day for the first time.
At about the same time, Tom and Louis Borders of Ann Arbor began to expand their fledgling chain, which shared some of the same attributes. In 1989 my company was purchased by B Dalton’s parent company, Barnes & Noble, and soon thereafter the Borders brothers sold out to Waldenbooks (at the time owned by Kmart) , which was later renamed Borders. The new owners stopped building smaller stores and started building giant bookstores as quickly as possible. Both companies were very innovative, including adding coffee shops and places to sit and read. Smaller communities, which often had no bookstores, received bigger chain stores named Hastings and Books-a-Million. And the public responded with unprecedented purchases of books.
In the first wave of bookstore chains – B. Dalton and Waldenbooks – many independent bookstores went out of business, as shoppers shifted to the mall stores with their convenient locations and sometimes longer hours. In the next wave, in which I was a participant, we found many small store competitors who cut their selection, cut their staffing, and cut their hours when we came to town, then blamed us for their demise.
On the other hand, independent competitors who loved the business and were willing to invest in their future, like the Tattered Cover in Denver and Book People in Austin, continued to prosper. It was not always easy for them, but anyone who wants an easy life should probably not select retailing, one of the lowest profit margin and most competitive industries on earth.
The net result of all this, I believe, has been a huge increase in the availability of books to the average person. While this has been a worldwide trend as overseas booksellers have emulated Barnes & Noble and Borders, it has had the most impact in America. In no other nation will you find 50,000+ titles of books available in communities as small as 1-200,000 people. The rise of online bookselling has just furthered this trend, making the most obscure books readily available to the most remote readers.
My own bottom line is that I love bookstores, and I love books. When I travel to new cities, I often pick my hotel based on its proximity to some famous bookstore (like Powell’s in Portland). I want to support anyone who stocks the books I seek and helps me discover books new and old. I shop chain stores, I shop independent stores, I shop online stores, I shop new bookstores, I shop used bookstores. By the presence of this diverse industry, my life is made better, our society is made better, and all of our brains are made stronger.