By Edward Nawotka
This has been a tumultuous year for bricks-and-mortar booksellers, with the closing of Borders, online bookstores going from strength-to-strength, and e-books increasingly consuming print marketshare. It’s no secret that the age of the superstore is over: paying rent on a 25,000-35,000 sq.-ft. retail space and stocking it with 100,000 titles seems foolhardy at a time when the economy continues to struggle and the future looks uncertain. The future of bookselling looks significantly downsized from what it did in the 1990s.
But this does not necessarily mean that the independent booksellers have “won.” Quite the contrary, over the past few years, several of the largest independent chains also suffered. Ohio’s Joseph-Beth Booksellers went through a bankruptcy, and Oregon’s Powell’s Books closed locations and laid off dozens of employees.
In this more modest environment, it may be the niche booksellers who have the best chance of survival. By this I mean bookstores that cater to a specific audience — be it a tight knit local community or a group of readers focused on a specific topic, such as literary fiction, art and architecture, children’s books or mysteries.
At a time when physical bookselling is even more beleaguered industry and shelf space is at a premium, is there a sweet spot size for a bookstore to remain viable? Certain examples exist that seem to offer templates — Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, McNally Jackson in Manhattan, Tattered Cover in Denver, R.J. Julia in Connecticut, Elliott Bay in Seattle, and a few dozen others — but these stores are, generally speaking, outliers in relatively well-off urban environments. And they survive not only because they have adequate levels of community backing, but because of business savvy and vision. The question is how much longer will they be around if the mainstream book buyer goes digital?
There is no obvious answer, but your thoughts will be appreciated in the comments below.