Is there still a place for local bookstores?
– Ryan Beltram, EDN
In Fahrenhiet 451, Ray Bradbury wrote a story about a frightening vision of the future where firemen don’t put out fires–they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury’s society in the book believed that the appearance of happiness is the highest goal and that books give us knowledge and ideas that ultimately will influence us negatively. But in our own future, will we have any books to burn at all?
The nations second-biggest book retailer, Borders, filed for bankruptcy in February and has already begun closing 30% of its more than 600 stores. The Waldenbooks store at Valley River Center will also be closed soon, but what about local bookstores? The number of independent bookstores has been declining for some time, from about 6,000 in the early 1990s to about 2,200 today, according to the American Booksellers Association.
“Are we an endangered species? Probably.” said Peter Ogura, owner of Black Sun Books. “The most challenging times have been the last couple of years because of declining sales. There are so many ways people can buy books now and I have not been particularly good at doing everything that I can to sell books online.” Despite being open for nearly 20 years, Ogura can understand the appeal of staying home to shop for books.
“It’s pretty simple but it takes away from options in your community for sure. If paying the least amount of money is your goal then you can always shop Amazon or Walmart. In the end it’s going to have an impact on local businesses and I’m not sure we will survive.”
In a digital world where everything is right at our fingertips whenever we want, the idea of leaving our home computer and driving to a store is becoming less attractive. The music business was the first to feel the affect.
In 2009, the Virgin Megastore in Manhattan’s Times Square, said to be the largest record store in the world, closed its doors. Last year, Portland’s Sheet Music Service store closed after almost 100 years in business. The end of music and record stores were due in large part to consumer’s ability to buy music from sites like Napster or iTunes and then download their music onto their computers and then onto small, portable MP3 players. No need for CDs, tapes or records anymore.
Next to go were video stores. Blockbuster, the leading video-rental chain filed for bankruptcy in September of 2010 due to debt and their inability to compete against Netflix, which mails movies to subscribers and also provides digital streaming and Redbox, which operates movie-rental kiosks at a cheaper price.
The demise of Borders has been a result of crushing debt and their inability to successfully navigate rapid changes in behavior in consumer’s spending habits. Those new spending habits include the purchase of electronic readers or e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle or the Nook which is made by Border’s competitor, Barnes & Noble. According to a report from the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales in the month of March increased by 145.7% from January of 2010. Compare that to hardcover books which saw an increase of only 6% from last year. Paperback books decreased in sales by nearly 8% in the same time span. E-book sales have increased annually and significantly in all nine years that the AAP have been tracking the category. But there is still an admiration and passion for books, particularly in local bookstores.
Lauren Kessler, Director of the Literary Nonfiction graduate program at the University of Oregon, thinks the appeal of local bookstores is the other things they offer. “There’s always going to be a hardcore group of people, and I’m one of them, who love bookstores and libraries. The way artists love museums. If bookstores want to succeed they have to give people reasons to come to them other than, we have a bunch of books and you should buy them. I do a lot of touring for my books and I go into bookstores all over the country and the ones that are vibrant today are the ones that have events. There is a reason for people to go there. They have author events, stuff for kids and community events related to books.” Kessler, who has written six books herself, also believes that a book holds more value than any form of digital content.
“Books are an artifact. The art that is done for book covers, the feel of the paper or the type style. All of those things are like a piece of art. Either you think of books as little works of art or you think of them as vehicles of information or entertainment. I have three children and none of them have e-readers and they’re not interested in them because they spend so much time on a computer anyway so it’s like a relief not to have a screen in front of them.”
In December of last year, Google eBooks launched its long-awaited electronic bookstore. It immediately became the largest e-book provider in the world, according to Publishers Weekly, with almost 3 million books, including more than 2 million titles available for free. The program offers options for independent booksellers to sell Google’s books on their websites without having to invest in expensive software platforms. This may spell good news for local bookstores trying to embrace the digital age.
But others in the independent book world like things the way they are.
“Why would anyone pick up a guitar or a drum again when they can create a whole orchestra digitally,” said Scott Landfield, owner of Tsunami Books. “Why would anyone do anything when they can sit in front of a screen and appear to be doing something. I have people come in here and they want to tell us their whole life story because this is a safe environment. We’ve got to have that interaction with people particularly if we’ve been behind a computer all day.”
Landfield is proud to say that despite some ups and downs, his business has been able to survive because of his loyal customers.
“We started with no money. Our challenges have never ended. We’re the only business that I know of that started 15 years ago with no money and is still a business. I have nothing if nobody comes in here. There’s a lot of wise people in the book industry but no one really knows in 5 years how this business is going to change. The month Borders came to town my partner and I planned and made a move to advertise and our business took a 50% jump. That was a cataclysmic move, the ultimate bookstore coming to town. You don’t try to battle with them, you find your own niche and go for it. People want to keep us open because it’s a traditional thing. New is not always better.”
The independent book scene isn’t doom and gloom everywhere though. San Francisco is a place where independent bookstores are not only surviving, but thriving thanks to a city of readers who view books not only as pleasure, but as a cause. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, San Francisco is the only city in the country that ranks in the top three annually in consumption of both books and alcohol. It remains to be seen what will happen here in Eugene.
Lauren Kessler is optimistic. “I still think bookstores will exist. You go to browse, to get ideas. One of my friends is totally into vinyl and there has been this whole resurgence of vinyl lovers. Why would there be? Albums are big, they scratch, you have to put them some place and go to a store to buy them and he appreciates them as artifacts and I think the same goes for books.”
2585 Willamette St
Eugene, OR 97405
Black Sun Books
2467 Hilyard St
Eugene, OR 97405