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Return of the bookstore

TRENDING | Brick-and-mortar bookselling proves more resilient than expected

Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan

Return of the bookstore
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November 2020 might not seem a propitious time to open a small business—especially a bookstore—but that’s exactly what podcaster David Kern did. His store, located in Concord, N.C., is called Goldberry Books, named after the wife of Tom Bombadil from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.But how could Goldberry Books hope to succeed when the received wisdom is that Amazon has won the bookselling game?

It turns out the impending doom of indie bookstores has been predicted not just since Amazon’s advent, but for generations.

In the 1970s, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks supposedly imperiled independent bookshops by opening soulless corporate stores in every mall in America. In the 1980s, big-box bookstores, most notably Barnes & Noble, began dominating the market, causing another round of predictions about the demise of the small bookseller. The 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail depicted big-box Fox Books—“wooing customers with its sharp discounts and designer coffee”—as the ­villain threatening the existence of the Shop Around the Corner.

It wasn’t until ten years later that Amazon became the new villain, offering even sharper discounts, sometimes at a loss. The final blow seemed to come in 2007 when the internet retailer introduced its popular Kindle e-reader. Analysts said digital would spell the end for printed books and the bookstores that sold them.

Borders closed all locations in 2011. Barnes & Noble attempted to diversify sales, devoting more floor space to toys and ­novelties. It even launched Barnes & Noble Kitchens, full-service restaurants, but the dining concept didn’t enjoy much success.

Today, Amazon’s dominance in the bookselling space appears insurmountable. The company’s market share of printed book sales is a bit hard to pin down. Words Rated, a research group specializing in ­publishing, puts the number at 40 percent. Other sources say Amazon sells half or more of all printed books in America, and it ­controls more than two-thirds of the e-book market. But while the internet behemoth was busy trouncing big retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble, the little guys began to make a quiet comeback.

In the final 30 years of the 20th century, the number of independent bookstores in America fell precipitously. But in the last decade, the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a trade organization for independent bookstores, has actually seen steady growth. In 2022, its members operated more than 2,500 locations—up more than 50 ­percent since 2009.

Books fill window displays at Goldberry Books in downtown Concord.

Books fill window displays at Goldberry Books in downtown Concord. Instagram/Goldberry Books

The printed book also no longer seems endangered. E-book sales peaked in 2014 and now hover at about 20 percent of book sales.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced some independent bookstores to close, but a surprising number of new ones opened in the midst of lockdowns. Printed book sales increased about 20 percent from 2019 to 2021.

If it weren’t for the pandemic, Goldberry Books might not have opened when it did. Kern wanted to own a bookstore one day, but the pandemic caused him to move up his timing: “We wouldn’t have done it when we did it if it weren’t for the pandemic. Like a lot of people, our priorities and circumstances began to change.”

The ABA boasts that the newly opened bookstores bring diversity to the industry. For Goldberry Books, the target demographic is people looking for stories that promote a healthy ­family life. Kern says, “You can leave your kid in our middle-grade section and not have to be afraid of what they’re going to encounter there.” He wants Goldberry to help create a healthy community and thinks of his store as a place to explore timeless ideas, not contemporary controversies.

Many Americans have become interested in supporting their local economies, which has proven a boon for independent bookstores. Profits can still be hard to come by, but another development has helped keep many small sellers afloat. Right before the pandemic, launched. The website allows users to buy online and choose an independent bookstore’s “storefront” to buy through. Bookshop handles order fulfillment, but the bookstore gets a share of the profits.

You can leave your kid in our middle-grade section and not have to be afraid of what they’re going to encounter there.

Ironically, the independent booksellers have a new ally, imitator, and competitor in Barnes & Noble. The struggling bookseller has gotten back on its feet in the last couple of years thanks to CEO James Daunt, who previously orchestrated the turnaround of Waterstones, a bookseller in Britain. Daunt introduced changes to make individual Barnes & Noble stores more independent. He ended the practice of pushing books in exchange for marketing dollars from publishers. He told store employees to throw out the bad books. And he empowered local managers to make purchasing decisions.

The plan worked. This year, Barnes & Noble intends to open 30 new stores.

Bookselling remains a somewhat precarious profession. Decades of buying at steep discounts has conditioned many consumers to balk at buying a $28 hardback that will give them 20 hours of entertainment while not thinking twice about spending the same amount on more fleeting experiences like dinner or movie tickets. Still the industry as a whole has shown itself more resilient than the prophets of ­disruption expected.

Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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