Last year, the Borders bookstore chain filed for bankruptcy, prompting much panic about the viability of brick-and-mortar bookstores, and feeding into larger concerns about the future of the book itself.
However, Borders also made a lot of unforced errors. Overexpansion, a poorly planned partnership with Amazon, and a lack of an e-book strategy were only a few of the company’s internal problems. The demise of Borders is not necessarily a bad thing, and might even be viewed as a prime example of “creative destruction” in the marketplace.
After all, big-box bookstores like Borders (and the more evolutionarily nimble, thus non-extinct, Barnes & Noble) themselves killed off an earlier generation of mall-era chains (remember B. Dalton and Waldenbooks?) that had already wreaked havoc on the country’s independent booksellers. So no tears need be shed for the latest dinosaur to fall.
Still, will the endgame simply be “Amazon devours everything”? The Seattle-based titan is currently hard at work trying to realize the (somewhat dizzying) dream of same-day shipping. Distribution centers would be set up in every major populated area, allowing for ultra-rapid delivery. Some observers are fretting that this will be the end, not only of brick-and-mortar bookstores, but of in-person retail shopping as we know it.
I suspect these fears are overstated. Then again, I’m partial. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my wife Danielle is the buyer at Houston’s renowned Brazos Bookstore, a hub of our city’s cultural community. I stopped in recently to talk with her boss, general manager Jeremy Ellis, about the future of bookselling and his own plans for the store.
Ellis, no stranger to the industry, having worked at five other independent bookstores before Brazos, does indeed see upside potential for businesses like his in the shifting marketplace.
“When you come into Brazos Bookstore, you see carefully curated shelves and displays filled with books that are exceptional in some way. Our expertise and approach excludes the ‘noise’ of the mediocre. People respect that, and they’ll pay for the experience. It’s a luxury brand. What we’re offering is taste: the brainpower that finds the good stuff and puts it right in your hand.”
Ellis is not the only entrepreneur moving aggressively to counter Amazonian hegemony. Ann Patchett, bestselling author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, recently opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee. As she explained to Stephen Colbert, “Suddenly people are waking up and going, ‘But I want to have someplace to take my kids for story hour on Saturday, and I want to have someplace to go to book club and see an author read.’”
The community aspects of bookstores, and local retail in general, are simply irreplaceable, and even with all the churn in the industry, Ellis thinks smaller operations can always find a way to succeed.
“The key for a local store is, don’t try to be Amazon. They do things we can’t. So what? Our job is to do the things they can’t. A sharp, personable, enthusiastic bookseller is still light years ahead of any algorithm. Unless you really do want to read variations of the same stuff you’ve already bought, over and over. Or find a cheap shower curtain.”
The threat of the e-book is likewise overstated, according to Ellis, who points out that in the age of the MP3, people now buy more vinyl records than they have in over two decades.
“There’s always a place in the market for beautiful, functional, physical things, even if we don’t ‘need’ them because there’s some other lowest-common-denominator option. People ultimately do appreciate quality, they appreciate tradition, and they won’t give up the tactile joy of reading a book. Or, enough of them won’t.”
An important caveat: to someone in a more rural area, the big-box selection offered by a Borders an hour’s drive away may be a pretty tragic thing to lose. But in cities, where there’s enough population density and culturally plugged-in consumers to support a business like Brazos, we may well see a flourishing of similar enterprises, in the vacuum left by the old national-chain paradigm.
So perhaps we don’t have to worry that the Yellow Monster will swallow everything whole. Rather, it appears we’re headed toward a situation of two extremes, with a mind-bogglingly efficient distribution network of smiling cardboard boxes on one hand, and the more social and personalized local bookstore on the other. To me, this looks like it could be the best of both worlds, a bright future for the book.