Is there a place for the good old-fashioned cluttered independent bookstore in the age of the ebook?
I don’t mean independent bookstores in general, because there have been indications that many indie bookstores are still doing well, and by some reports more of them than ever are opening up. One of Indianapolis’s biggest indie bookstores, Indy Reads Books, also seems to be ticking along just fine downtown. But there’s a certain kind of bookstore I used to see when I was much younger that I don’t see so much anymore.
And there might be a good reason for that. A recent article in the Indianapolis Star (found via The Passive Voice) notes that another local bookstore, Books Unlimited, will probably be closing soon. The proprietor, 54-year-old Michael Stafford, admits to being far behind on his rent, and has been trying to sell the entire store for $10,000 but no one wants to buy.
It’s not hard to see why. I’ve actually visited Books Unlimited. It’s a marvelous throwback to the stores I remember from my childhood in the ’80s and ’90s—but the problem is, so is, so is Stafford. In the last few years, many second-hand bookstores have been able to supplement their meager bricks-and-mortar income by listing books for sale via Amazon–even books they sell for a penny-plus-shipping each can earn them some money from Amazon’s generous shipping allowance. But Stafford, who “remains wary of the digital age,” doesn’t even watch TV. When I spoke to him last year, he was hopeful that impending renovations to the neighborhood would bring more business, but I guess it hasn’t panned out. Or else he might not be able to hold out long enough for those renovations to bear fruit.
And the throwback nature of the shop could also be why people don’t shop there. Where shops like Indy Reads Books are neatly organized, with spacious facilities and neatly-stocked shelves, Books Unlimited is cluttered, not just with books but with computer games, chess sets, and pretty much anything else you can cram into the space. You can see it in the photo above, which I took when I visited it a year ago. Books are stacked on books on top of shelves. Paintings and prints hang on any open space, and knicknacks sit everywhere.
While all this clutter does lend the shop a good deal of charm, “charm” doesn’t sell books in an age when people can easily buy print books or ebooks online without needing to venture into bricks and mortar. And when it comes to bricks and mortar, most people don’t actually like trying to maneuver in such cramped spaces even if they think they love cluttered little stores like that. Time has simply passed that kind of store by–especially if the stores haven’t also moved online.
Books Unlimited is also not located in the best neighborhood for getting a lot of foot traffic. It used to be just outside of Indianapolis’s downtown area, but had to move a couple of miles away when local business Angie’s List needed to expand. While there is a nice café just up the block where you can take your purchases and read them after you buy them, and an outdoor park just a little further away, not so many people are likely to venture out far enough to stop there–and as the article notes, it also has to compete with area garage sales.
And Books Unlimited doesn’t have those things going for it that other area bookstores do: Indy Reads Books has a downtown location and a well-organized store. Books’n’Brews has a tasty brewpub. Porter Books and Bread has a bakery. Bookmama’s–literally a half-block away from the 99-year-old historic condo where I now live–is in a historic neighborhood with a lot more attractions, and shares space with a vinyl record, cassette, and 8-track store, which has its own separate audience who will nonetheless appreciate analog books just as they appreciate analog music.
It might be that the best hope for Books Unlimited is that someone with a better grasp of the modern book retail business will shell out $10,000 for Stafford’s store–that’s less than $1 per book, even leaving aside all the other knicknacks–and figure out a way to modernize it and draw more people in. It might well be that the extra publicity he gets from the Indy Star mention could lead to more interested buyers–there was even one person expressing interest in the comments there.
But in an age when you can order print books or ebooks without ever leaving your home, and the ebooks bring with them the instant gratification of reading immediately, there has to be a better reason for people to leave their homes and venture out–or else the store needs to leverage online sales, too. Charming clutter just isn’t enough anymore.
A very similar bookstore that I used to frequent closed down a few months ago in Bucharest. While it was charming (it even had a cat), I could seldom find what I needed, and all too often the owner couldn’t help me either.
Now, I suck at business, but if I was running a place like that, my bet would be on careful curation of the merchandise. Instead of selling piles of random stuff, the focus would be on stocking well-chosen items from a few select categories that I’m familiar with and could advise customers on. The cozy atmosphere, complete with feline, can stay — those probably help. But people come into a bookstore to buy the books they want, and if that doesn’t work, everything else is moot.
Another problem, as I see it, is the lack of “interesting” stock on the shelves in most used book stores. The interesting stuff is for sale on line and the shelves are full of old bestsellers, classics, and the stuff nobody wants. If a book is interesting, it can probably get a better price on the internet, rather than languish in a store somewhere. It probably makes business sense to sell some stuff on line, though the cluttered style store have hidden treasures.
Of course “interesting” may be fungible. Perhaps “uncommon” is a better term. For example, Stephen King is very common, but uninteresting (IMHO). But a novel like “Poor Fellow, My Country” by Xavier Herbert is uncommon (in the USA), but interesting. Despite years of searching, no bookstore (in the USA) has had the novel for sale, though available on line.
Your picture reminds me of a used bookstore that opened in my Greenwood neighborhood when I lived in Seattle. All that needs to be added are boards between the tops of bookcases for the cats to wander about.
The store’s business model seemed to be a good one. Supporters would donate books that were then sold for 50 cents (paperbacks) to $1 (hardbacks), with early editions of classic books priced a bit more. The owner told me that, being retired, he and his wife didn’t need the store to provide them with any income and that sales were covering the rent and utilities.
Alas, health issues force the couple running it to close down, but I’ve always thought that others should take up the idea. When you retire, why sit around the house like many old people do, staring at the stupidies of broadcast TV and turning into a vegetable? Why not do something that gets you out doing good and meeting interesting people?
Traveling someplace to buy a book just seems such a throwback to an earlier time that I can’t imagine why anyone would do that to themselves. Not only is it bothersome, they never have what you want and — speaking of which — how do you *know* what you want if you don’t read on-line reviews?
Back in the bad old days I used to discover *maybe* 2 – 3 authors per year that I liked. Now, it’s 2 – 3 per week. At least. That’s because brick and mortar bookstores never had much variety, nor did they make ANY effort to promote new/different authors.
There’s a reason that they’re dying off and, yes, that’s a good thing. The heyday of brick and mortar stores wasn’t romantic; it was monopolistic. Good riddance; hurry up and die is what I say.
Yeah, well, thats why I started Crappy Old Books .co.uk in 2010 to replicate the crappy old book store experience. I even offer the crappy old book store customer service. These old book stores were an incidental part of our culture that you could hide out in even if you didn’t want to buy anything. I often try to find these sorts of shops but whenever I do everything I find is really expensive. Sure, they have their bargain trolly but its not like it was. I think part of the problem is that books are just so big and clever now. You could fit more books in a shop and have more stock to browse in the past when books were much smaller but it seems that publishers make books really big now to present a percieved value and its all rubbish. Books are often just fancy art covers, not even clever anymore. Most books store want to look like crappy retro bookstores but in fact they are overpriced theme parts with designer interiors and fancy smells and stuff. Yeah, I miss old book shops which is why I rub my site, get the crappy old book store experience online from the comfort of your home. Its crappy and smells odd.