Farewell to An Old Friend: The Bookstore

Let me tell you a sad story.

I was visiting a friend of mine who runs one of the most successful and innovative independent bookstores in East Texas.

It was the perfect place to steal away and hide away among great authors of the past and present whether you write or you read. You could surround yourself and even suffocate yourself with powerful prose that ripped you out of the piney woods and transported you to other worlds, other lands, and other times.

My friend had a worried look on her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Business is tough,” she said.

“It always has been,” I said.

“I’m wondering if I can stay open,” she said.

“Is it the economy?” I asked.

“Not really,” she said.

“Then what’s wrong?” I asked.

“Let me explain it this way,” she said. “I have five ladies who are my most loyal and faithful customers. I can always depend on them to buy books as gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas.”

She paused and sighed deeply.

“But all five of them were given Kindles for Christmas,” she said. “They are merely a small sampling of the problem I have. People still come in, buy coffee, and visit the books for a while. Then they go home and buy them on Amazon.”

I don’t know who felt worse: my friend trying to survive in a world that has fewer bookstores every day or me because I am writing and producing eBooks.”

I would still go over and buy a printed book from time to time, but only if it was autographed. I like autographs. But I noticed fewer shoppers, and there didn’t seem to be as many new titles as there used to be. The last time I walked in, the coffee was still brewing, but the shelves were bare.

The books were gone.

It was almost as though I had stepped into the pages of Fahrenheit 451.

The books hadn’t been burned.

They had just been returned.

They might as well have been burned. They weren’t coming back.

In my life, bookstores have been the one constant in my life, landmarks regardless of where I lived. The landmarks are vanishing.

I grieve, and I’m not alone.

Mitch Albom, the Chicago columnist and best selling author, explained it this way as he watched Borders go out of business, one store at a time: “We are once again reminded that no matter how lovely the casing, how beautiful the print, how fetching the binding, or how stunning the cover, business is still business. And books are a tough business.

“The problem is people don’t love books the way they once did, nor do they read them the same way. Cheaper electronic versions undermine the need for shelf-space. Younger audiences who haven’t grown up with rainy afternoons spent inside book pages don’t snap up the latest great read – unless there’s a certain vampire or wizard attached.

“The backlists of mid-level authors are not lucrative for the balance sheet. And the pressure for profits to keep the stock price high runs diametrically opposite to the slow, meandering, long-term customer approach that used to define bookstores.”

The world, he said, is changing.

The printed word, he said, is gasping.

A symphony doesn’t play anymore when you pull open a bookstore door, and soon, sadly the doors may be gone as well.

The industry heard the thunder. It didn’t recognize the fact that the storm was on its way.

Bookstores are leaving. EBooks are coming.

One saddens me, and one excites me.

According to Digital Book World, book revenues from portable devices will reach nearly ten billion dollars by 2016, and bookstores – if they don’t figure out how to effectively merge digital and traditional commerce – may face extinction.

Book revenue on e-Reading devices have already reached more than three billion dollars, and it has become a tidal wave that the publishing industry has been unable to control.

According to a report on Mobile Publishing, released by the UK-based Juniper Research firm, about thirty percent of eBooks will be purchased on tablets, fifteen percent on smartphones, and roughly fifty-five percent on eReader devices.

Dr. Windsor Holden, research director for Juniper, predicts that there will still be a need for physical bookstore fronts in 2016, but those who survive will be able to leverage both digital and physical promotional methods. He cited Barnes & Noble that is working to sell Nook devices, tablets, and desktops as a way to sell books.

There will be fewer bookstores.

But the publishing industry will continue to grow.

That’s what the report said.

It may help me.

It didn’t help my friend. A bookstore that only sells coffee is a sad place to be.

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