Miranda Roethler reported and wrote a comprehensive, insightful article about ebooks and the future of bookselling for one of her classes at Oregon Episcopal School, where she’s a junior. We’re publishing a condensed version of it here. Roethler is a native Portlander. She says she spends her free time swimming, hanging out with friends, watching old movies, and, of course, devouring all of the (print) books she can get her hands on.
On a busy, narrow, one-way street in quaint, homey Multnomah Village, Annie Bloom’s Books sits crammed between a curiosity shop and an Irish Café. Passersby stop to browse through the bin of bargain books sitting on the pavement outside the brick and tile exterior. A window display advertises the debut of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.
In a light and airy room, three women of varying ages keep up a constant chatter with themselves and the customers as they work. “That book is so popular with that age group,” one notes as she rings up a Warriors book for a woman and her son. Another listens politely as an eight-year-old girl asks about a specific book on dogs; she knows the title (sort of), and thinks the author’s name starts with a T. Or maybe a G. The cashier begins searching.
Looking around, it’s not obvious that the store is struggling to stay in business.
If you’re reading this, you probably know the story well. During the past few decades, small, independent bookstores have received several crushing blows that have forced many out of business. First, giant chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and then “big box” stores like Costco and Wal-Mart began appearing in greater numbers. Then Web-based booksellers such as Amazon became popular. All of these book-buying options offered progressively cheaper prices that were impossible for small independent stores to compete with. As if these companies weren’t competition enough, then came the economic crash of 2008 and the ebook.
“Over the past few decades, in the blink of the eye of history, our culture has begun to go through what promises to be a total metamorphosis,” begins the infamous Gutenberg Elegies, a book by Sven Birkerts that rocked the literary world more than fifteen years ago with its dire predictions of the death of the book and which, ironically enough, I was able to preview on Amazon’s website.
The fact is, technology is developing in today’s society at an unprecedented rate. In 2000, the most recent threat to small independent bookstores—and to the printed book itself—was born. On March 14 of that year, Simon & Schuster released Stephen King’s novella Riding the Bullet online. Within twenty-four hours, around half a million people had downloaded the book, and the electronic book, or e-book, revolution had officially begun.
In 2002, close to one million e-books were sold. Although slow to begin, recently the popularity of e-books has risen with the release of e-readers. In 2009, e-book sales grew by one hundred and seventeen percent. Amazon currently sells more electronic books than print books—about one hundred and five e-books for every one hundred print books, according to recent article in The New York Times.
So where does that place the printed book and booksellers? In September of 2011, Borders closed its last store. But they certainly aren’t the only ones. Around the nation, small, independent bookstores are struggling to stay alive. A classic example of an independent book business gone belly-up is Looking Glass Books. This Southeast Portland store closed in March 2011, to the considerable dismay of the community. As the business faced closure, owner Karin Anna described a pivotal experience with the e-book in an article in The Oregonian. A customer came into the store, found a book that was priced at $40 and asked Anna if she could match the online price, which was a full $16 cheaper. “I couldn’t and wouldn’t,” Anna told a reporter. “It was an incredibly painful experience.”
Will Peters, manager of Annie Bloom’s books, agrees it’s been a struggle to stay in business. I met with him in the heart of Annie Bloom’s office, a low-ceilinged basement with yellow lighting and a labyrinth of desks, chairs, overflowing bookshelves and blinking computers. An English major in college, Peters says he went into the book business because he “wasn’t fit for a real job.” Tall and white-haired, with a piercing, intelligent gaze intensified by black, thin-framed glasses, Peters possesses a deep, infectious, often-heard laugh. However, while talking about the e-book he assumes a slightly stiff and carefully indifferent air; he is not sure where to stand on this difficult subject. On one hand, one could argue that e-books are encouraging reading in today’s technology-oriented world. On the other hand, they are threatening to drive his store out of business.
Peters talks about the “waves of competition,” starting with chain stores and then big box stores, and then online corporations, the biggest challenge right now. E-books have definitely affected his business, but he notes that it’s hard to say how much, especially with the economic recession. He believes that his store is doing quite well, all things considered, but he’s heard from some of his friends in the profession that the last few years have been very rough.
Valerie (“Val”) Ryan, owner of Cannon Beach Book Company, a small bookshop in Cannon Beach, puts it more bluntly: her biggest challenge during the past ten years has been to stay in business. Recently Ryan has had to reduce inventory and payrolls. Amazon, she says, is a huge threat to her business. One of her recent Facebook posts reads, “If you really want to occupy Wall Street, stop shopping at Amazon!”
E-books pose an additional threat for Ryan. Many tourists have been bringing e-books with them on vacation, since they are more portable than regular books. In a small beach town like Cannon Beach, where most business comes from tourists, this shift to electronic books is quite a blow.
Peters agrees that the biggest problem with e-books is the monopoly that certain corporations, namely Amazon, have over the business. When a person buys an e-reader through Amazon, he or she can only purchase e-books through Amazon. Although Annie Bloom’s does offer e-books through its website, they are not very popular because of this monopoly. Peters thinks that companies like Amazon should have followed what he calls the “movie model,” where a book could be available only in print for several months, like a movie in theaters, and then be released as an e-book, like DVDs.
Sally McPherson, co-owner of Broadway Books in Northeast Portland since 2007, also has a thing or two to say about big online corporations—namely Amazon. “I always tell people, Amazon is not a bookstore. It’s a Walmart. You don’t call Safeway a bookstore just because they have a few paperbacks at the checkout stand. Amazon sells lawnmowers and shoes and everything in between. It just started out selling books,” she says. She compares the situation to buying a car for cheap but then only being able to buy from one gas station. If they decide to dramatically raise the prices, or pump bad-quality gas, you’re stuck. “I’m not anti-e-book,” Sally clarifies. “I’m anti-control.”
Which brings up a crucial point: bookstores aren’t the only stores being threatened by the Internet revolution and online shopping. The reality is that most things are cheaper when ordered through huge corporations online. “It’s not just books. It’s everything,” Ryan says. Movies. Music. Clothing. Almost all stores are receiving some kind of online competition, and as a result, many small, community-based shops are closing.
Peters says Annie Bloom’s attracts customers by trying to highlight the unique experience of the small independent bookshop, an experience that would be impossible to find online. His bookstore is different from online corporations like Amazon and chains like Barnes & Noble, he says, because Annie Bloom’s is very much a part of the community. The store does school fundraisers and holds book readings and community meetings. “I don’t think they have that on Amazon!” he laughs.
Peters also notes the difference in what they carry in the store. “We sell different books here than you would find online,” he tells me, adding that online, people find books through “impulsive clicks,” instead of browsing through a store. Peters often has conversations with frequent customers to find out what they like. “We’ll hear about new books from the publisher and think, ‘oh, Mrs. Jones would really like that!’ ” he says.
Ryan also prides herself on her “deep book list.” “Books you find in a grocery store, you will not find in my store,” she says.
Ryan and Peters both stress their stores’ excellent customer service. But customer service sometimes isn’t enough. As I chat with McPherson at Broadway Books, she gets a call. “Oh, hi Jeanie,” she says in a friendly tone. “That book that was featured on NPR the other day? Oh, do you mean The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper? I’m sorry, it’s all sold out, but we can ship it in a few days . . . Okay, great! It’s $35.” There’s a long pause as, presumably, the woman at the other end reacts to the price, and Sally’s voice changes. “Okay . . . well. Give us a call if you change your mind. We also have this new pop-up book on M.C. Escher. There are only three in stock . . .” But she eventually hangs up without having made a sale.
Despite this incident, McPherson notes that lately there has been an increased interest in shopping local. “People have realized that they need to spend their money where their heart lies,” she tells me. “Their heart doesn’t lie in some warehouse of Amazon’s in California.”
Inside Cannon Beach Book Company, something becomes apparent that neither Ryan, Peters, nor McPherson mentioned, perhaps because it’s so blatantly obvious and also a bit clichéd: what these stores have and what big corporations like Amazon lack is heart. Ryan, Peters, and McPherson aren’t in this business for the money; they’re in it because they love books and reading, and they want to share their love with everyone in their community. The overall profit for the book industry nationally is negative two percent, Sally tells me. “We’re not getting rich here.”
In November, novelist Ann Patchett opened a bookstore in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Why? Because,with the closure of Borders, there were almost no bookstores to speak of in the city anymore. “I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore,” Patchett told reporters. “But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.”
Are bookstores really disappearing so quickly that people have to start opening them because they feel it’s their civic duty? Peters doesn’t think so. In fact, he’s quite optimistic about the future of the bookstore and the printed word. He cannot say enough about the advantages of the printed book, and he firmly believes that because of these advantages, bookstores will always have a place in the future. McPherson disagrees; she says it’s quite possible that in the future there will be no bookstores. Although perhaps a treasonous thought for most people in the book business, one has to wonder, what would it be like if there were no bookstores? How would you browse? Ask for recommendations? Meet authors? Go to book signings? How would you get the search engine to turn up results for “book about skyscrapers on NPR the other day,” or “kid’s book with ‘the dog’ in the title, by someone named T or G”?
Though McPherson is pessimistic about the future of the bookstore, she is cautiously optimistic about the future of the printed word. The book has survived for this long, she says. It is treasured and cherished by many. Those people won’t let it die now, or anytime soon.