Monday, January 25, 2010

The Sad Case of the Independent Bookstore

I was in Houston this past weekend for a friend's wedding, and as I'm inclined to do when in a new city, I found a cool-looking local independent bookstore. As colorful and cheerful as Brazos Bookstore appeared when I first walked in, after spending a few minutes browsing, I realized it was pretty representative of most small, independent bookstores I've visited lately — the fiction selection was pretty tiny, new release hard covers were priced in full, and for most of the time I was there, despite the fact that the store is located in a busy strip mall, I was the ONLY one there.

I absolutely love small independent and/or used bookstores, and so I think the fact that they're being squeezed out is one of the saddest ongoing trends in the book industry. Here's how significant the decline is: As of October of last year, the American Booksellers Association is down to about 1,500 members from 4,000 stores 15 years ago. On a more micro scale, last year my beloved Harry W. Schwartz franchise closed its doors after 82 years of business in Milwaukee. That was an absolute gut-punch.

Look, I know this post isn't exactly a revelation. You're all likely familiar with the reasons why independent bookstores are going out of business at approximately the same rate as banks. And it's even more likely that I'm preaching to the choir here. But this is just something I've been thinking about with a tad more immediacy the last few days after the trip to Brazos. It's a worthwhile reminder that if you haven't set foot in your local store in awhile, or if you're traveling in another city, why not pop into the mom-and-pop-shop on the corner and buy something?

After all, what better souvenir is there than a book?! I love looking over my shelf and remembering that, for instance, I purchased Zeitoun at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, or Everything Matters! at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, or The Historian at Schwartz in Milwaukee.  (RIP Schwartz!)

Have you made similar souvenir book purchases at independent bookstores? What and where? Also, do you think these independent stores have a future? Why or why not?


  1. I just did this! Some months ago, I read and reviewed The King's English, which is a book about running an indie bookstore in Salt Lake City. The book really made me think. My sister was in Salt Lake this past weekend, so I asked her to get a book for me- Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.

    Here is my review and my subsequent thoughts on indie stores:

  2. It's really so sad about the independent bookstores disappearing. :-(
    I bought several books in the used bookstore while I was at home, but really, lately, I've have very little luck finding independent bookstores (I guess because I've mostly been traveling in Europe).
    However, when I was growing up, there was an independent bookstore called Books, Etc., that was actually in walking distance of my house (and NOTHING is in walking distance of ANYTHING where I grew up), and I would spend hours there every weekend.
    Somewhere in storage, I have every single book that I ever bought from that bookstore separated from all of my other books. The books bought there will always have a very special place in my heart.

  3. I always make it a point to buy a book in every city I go to. I write the city I bought it in on the inside cover with a date. Occasionally it will be a cool local history book or other local fare or a cookbook related to the regional cuisine.

    Ah, the memories.

  4. At the moment my very own bookstore I work at (which isn't small and independent) is facing possible closing. Bookstores all across the board are in danger.

    Time to look for a new job unfortunately :(

  5. Sadly, we have no independent bookstores near us. The closest one I know of is more than 50 miles away - but then, so are B&N and Borders.

  6. I make it a point to visit the independent book shops around me as often as possible. The only problem tends to be their limitations in terms of stocks. I usually check an indie place, and if they don't have what I need, then I go to a larger chain store.

    One of my favorite memories (or set of memories)of the time I spent living in England was that I would visit an independent or used bookstore in every city I visited, at least once. They have some of the coolest indie stores I've ever seen, as many of them are located in old houses, so there are three floors full of wall-to-wall shelves.

  7. I'm in a bit of an awkward position, being here in Taiwan - there aren't many independant bookstores that carry English books. There are a couple (Caves Books is one) but that's waaayyyyyyy out of my way so I usually end up buying them online. So to assuage my guilt I tend to get them from BetterWorldBooks cos then at least it's 2nd hand and/or helping people out!

  8. I'm definitely a souvenir purchaser at indie bookstores. I also found a really cool library-connected indie in Little Rock the last time I was there. I snagged a few titles and left very happy.

    I live in a suburb of Dallas, and sadly I couldn't tell you even one indie in my area. They've been pretty well snuffed here--at least in te neighborhoods where I typically spend time.

  9. I've been meaning to check out a new local book store called Dave's Olde Book Shop (or maybe Dave's Old Book Shoppe). I know of at least one more indie book store in my area but for some reason I always end up at B&N or Borders. I guess I just love to wonder through the shelves of thousands of titles.

    Books as souvenirs is a great idea! Why have I never thought of that? And it would semi-justify buying more books when my TBR stack at home is piling up to the ceiling. :)

    I was just thinking the other day how cool it would be to own my own book store. Sadly, if I ever actually got to a point in my life where that would be feasible, indie book stores will probably have gone the way of the dodo.

    Great post!

  10. It's such a horrible thing when an independent bookstore does go under because of the bigger bookstores (like in the movie 'You've Got Mail'... that was a sad state of affairs, but it has been happening). However, around Brisbane, Australia, I have found that there are bookstores that have found more online customers than off-the-street customers and so have moved their stores online completely. One such example is 'Red Books'. It used to be at Underwood and now it's at Red Books and when it was a real bookstore, I found the most amazing books there at great prices. And she still has the best prices online too.
    However, the independent bookstores still exist here in Brisbane; they haven't been squeezed out only because nobody wants to pay full price for anything. We are the ultimate bargain hunters and will keep looking until we find a book (or anything for that matter) at the price we want it. I have found 'Cumquat Books' at Annerley to be a fantastic place. It doesn't look much - a grey building with a small parking lot out back - but it's a brilliant place to find that particular book! Then, there's Archives Books on Charlotte Street which has been there for over 20 years. I don't see that one going anywhere soon. And the other one is the Chardon's Corner Bookstore. It used to be in a house, but the house was sold now it's in a small shop; and it's been going since before I was in high school.

    So, the independents are still around in Australia and won't be pushed out simply due to people not wanting to pay full price for what they read. It's just not worth it; and usually, we end up either Bookcrossing it or giving it away to charity.

  11. I wrote on my blog about the wonderful independent bookstores I visited in Sydney, Australia. They were all busy and had a good selection of used and new books. My favorite was Gertrude and Alice Bookstore at Bondi Beach (they served coffee and healthy food too). I recently added an IndieBound app to my iPhone. In Honolulu I love to visit BookOff located in the Japanese department store, "Shirokiya" at Ala Moana. Aloha from Rob

  12. here in Perth we have a fantastic shop called Oxford Street Books (which is on Oxford Street :-)). it is nestled into a restaurant/cafe strip which also has a really funky music store and independent clothing stores. (and a few pubs and a cinema - probably my most favourite street in Perth). OSB is open late night most nights, so lots of people love to go out for a coffee or dinner or a movie and stop to buy some books on their way home. i must admit that on more than one occassion i have stopped in there on my way home from the irish pub there - eek, irish pub+drinking+book shopping = no more money! I just love that it is open all the time and the people who work there are so friendly and will gladly order in any book you would like. i hope it never goes out of business.

  13. @Everyone - Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. It was really interesting reading about your different experiences all over the world, from Taiwan to France to Australia to Hawaii to Dallas! (And sorry to hear you're losing your job, Erica!)

  14. As my goal is to open an independent bookstore in my small tourist town it is sad to read your blog post about the decline of the indies. I'm hoping I can be one of the minority and have a slamming used bookstore. I am like you in that one of the first things I do when visiting a new place is I search out the small independent bookstores. I am actually about to take a trip through the southeast visiting other bookstores and gathering ideas. Great blog by the way!!!!


  15. I enjoyed this post. It is sad to see independent book stores closing. I see you live in Chicago. I do as well. Are there any good book stores you frequent in the city?

  16. @Julie - Absolutely! Here are three good ones:
    -- Unabridged Bookstore on Broadway http://www.unabridgedbookstore.com/
    -- The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square http://www.bookcellarinc.com/
    -- Open Books on Institute (great used book store and literacy advocate all in one!) http://www.open-books.org/

    Thanks for the comment!

  17. Such a great idea. We always do buy books at every bookstore we encounter on vacation, but usually for my sons because I can't keep them in reading material.
    I love supporting the little guys. Thanks for the reminder.

  18. I require my relatives to have a list of all used bookstores within a 25 mile radius when I come visit (not really but wouldn't that save me lots of time?) I visited houston in Sept and I was discouraged with only finding half price books and an overpriced quarter priced books store until I happened upon Twice Told Tales in the northwest corner of houston. Awesome place! I finally left with an armload of books 2 hours later. If you're ever in the Grand Rapids, MI area and need good UBSs let me know. We have some really good ones here.

  19. It is very unfortunate about the indie bookstores. The only ones I know of around my area are used book stores and I try to always go to them first. One thing a local used book store is doing is selling used college textbooks to students. There are 4 colleges/universities in the city so with a little local advertising and through word of mouth they have been able to stay in business. I hope it lasts.

  20. By the way, I used to go to school in Chicago with a girl named Shoshana Zimmerman (I think that was her name. I do remember that her uncle owned an ice cream shop) Are you by any chance related?

  21. If you are looking for some great indie bookstores, please check out my sidebar, where I have links to some of the best I've visited, as well as a couple of sources to help you find registered independent bookstores.

    Greg, you are so right. We need to do everything we can to keep these gems intact, or we all end up at the mercy of the giants.