Shape-Shifting Small Bookstores

The X-Factors of Small Bookstore Survival

A Small Bookshop in Amsterdam - Photo Taken by MorBCN's Photostream via Flickr from Yahoo!

Not being a bookstore insider, I get my information about what’s going on with bookstores the way many of us do – by reading about them or taking myself on little “class trips.” A few weeks ago I went to witness the closing of my local Borders store, took a few photos and blogged about it. Since then I’ve been tracking online articles about small bookstore closings — one after another, I’m sad to say. According to one of my favorite news sources for such things (, there have been 2000 independent bookstore closings in Britain since 2005, including Notting Hill – The Travel Bookshop, made famous by the 1999 movie starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Efforts to save Notting Hill, led by celebs, have apparently failed. This story is being repeated globally as bookstores (many with a resident cat) are closing — in Canada, Japan, Australia, the U.S. and other places. Three famous independents here in Los Angeles that have met this fate are Dutton’s Bookstore, The Mystery Bookstore and the Bodhi Tree, closing this Christmas.


If you love bookstores (and I do), then the predictions that accompany these store closings are depressing.  Dan Poynter, the self-publishing guru who travels around the world a number of times each year and has his finger on the pulse of publishing, predicts that within a few years, all publishing will be online. John Biggs, a blogger and gadget geek for TechCrunch, is quoted as saying, “I love books but they’re not going to make it past this decade…The time to pivot is now and it’s clearly already happening.” In a February 2011 article in USA Today called “Is There Hope for Small Bookstores in the Digital Age?” reporter Bob Minzesheimer forecasts that shelf space for print books will decline 50% in next 5 years and 90% in 10 years. Another article, “The End of Bookshops,” predicts that bookshops will be “wiped out in only five years.”  So it’s looking more and more as though somewhere between 2011 and 2021, your local Barnes & Noble may consist of nothing more than a café with an espresso coffee machine sitting next to an Espresso Book Machine (EBMs can print a book from a digital file in just minutes) with digital access to millions of books (if you still insist on paper), including the Encyclopedia Britannica which has also gone digital.

The Comfort of Community

Each bookstore closing triggers deep emotional reactions from staff and patrons, many describing themselves as “heartbroken,” “distraught,”  “crestfallen,” or “angry” over having their gathering places wrenched away from them. Earlier this year 200 upset customers picketed to protest the closing of a Barnes & Noble store in Encino, California. I ran a writers’ group there and we lost our home, then settled elsewhere, and now that’s up in the air.

It’s not that any of these people are being denied access to books. They’re being denied access to the human connection and the comfort of community they’ve become used to, and they’re also being denied access to potential dreams hidden away in all those books, yet to be discovered. Haven’t you ever bought a book just to have it? Maybe not even to read right away, but because you sense there’s something in it you might need to know someday? How will one stumble across such precious volumes if there are no more bookstores? The co-owner of one U.S. bookstore, which has no immediate plans to shut down, was quoted in one of the articles I read as saying, “There are customers who would start crying if we said we were closing. People are hungry for human contact, and so when we create a place where like-minded individuals can gather, it’s going to work.”

Surviving Bookstores Shape-Shifting

Before you get too discouraged, consider this: Yes, thousands of small bookstores have gone out of business, but thousands more have survived.  Not only that, but new ones are actually being opened. What’s going on? Don’t they read the papers?  Are they in massive denial? But I saw this with my own eyes when I went to the Flintridge/La Canada (California) Bookstore and Coffeehouse to see their Espresso Book Machine (see my July 31st blog about this great gizmo) and learned that the store had just been rebuild and expanded (after a truck had driven through it!). I remember thinking, “How refreshing! A new bookstore.”

My Own "Small Bookshop" of Writing Books

A booksellers meeting this year in Washington, D.C. (again, according to articles I’ve been reading) drew 500 people, 25 of them considering opening new bookstores, which is significant. The American Booksellers Association reports that after membership slid from 4000 down to 1750, it’s creeping up again and is now at 1800. Bookstore survivors are brainstorming like mad, trying to figure out the best things to do to stay in business.

Small Bookstore “To Do” List

Here’s part of an evolving “To Do” list for small bookstores looking to thrive:  take advantage of the mega bookstore closings * hook in to the growing “support local businesses” movement * make sure book-buying is a pleasant experience * hold events, groups, classes, talks * let the supermarkets use their floor space to stock the best-sellers and magazines * stick to unique books and niche topics * sell both used and new books * partner with local POD authors and carry some of their books * market locally * have a welcoming café * open up later and stay open late * put your entire inventory online * market via social media * offer services that customers can’t get elsewhere * sell some gifts and toys, but don’t become a gift store or toy store that sells books * sell personalized children’s books * do a radio pod cast with authors and an audience *  have volunteer “interns” to assist and learn about the book business * have free writing classes to help grow new authors * and, finally, smile and stock really great books!

The Mystery of Survival

I don’t know if the dire predictions about the death of bookstores will actually come to pass, but what I do know from being a psychotherapist for twenty-five years is that when it comes to “recovery,” there are mysterious x-factors in the mix that we can’t explain. So don’t count the bookstores out yet.

Copyright Sylvia Cary 2011


6 responses to “Shape-Shifting Small Bookstores

  1. we are lucky enough to have powells bookstore…not exactly small but an amazing independent….and thankfully it is always packed.

  2. Dear Sylvia, this was a very thorough account of the future of bookstores and the book publishing. Thanks.

  3. Loved this blog! One of my favorite little places is Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, California. They seem to have it down – unique books, author readings, wonderful one-of-a-kind gifts, a great kid’s collection, fantastic service and coffee, coffee, coffee. All in a natural woodsy setting. I hope it never closes!

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