Now that Borders is in bankruptcy and at least 200 stores closing, some people have asked me what I think is going to happen to brick and mortar bookstores in the future. Do they have a future? Will they survive?
There’s one comparison I keep coming back to: record stores.
When you consider that the digital revolution happened in music a little over a decade ago, it’s interesting to see what has happened to record stores since the rise of the mp3. Basically: carnage on a massive scale. A huge number of stores closed, especially national chains. First it was Tower Records, then Virgin Megastores (here in the US), and now, well, Borders.
And an interesting fact to bear in mind is that digital revenue still has not surpassed physical. It’s debatable about whether we’ve really seen a digital tipping point in the music industry. Declining overall sales (likely due at least in part to piracy), and a shift to online music vending and digital music was enough to tip the balance away from profitability for most brick and mortar chains.
Now there’s a seriously fractured landscape. Record stores haven’t disappeared entirely, but there’s a whole lot less of them.
So what’s the comparison for books? Well, I look at the situation here in San Francisco. After the closure of the Virgin Megstore, Tower Records, and (nearly) all of our Borders, there are basically three types of record stores left, and they could offer some clues on the types of bookstores that will survive:
1) The Aquarius Records Model. Aquarius Records is a very small record store in the Mission District known for its hand-picked roster of sales and its knowledgeable staff. It’s small, it’s intimate, they support local artists, you go there knowing what kind of music they sell and you come away with new discoveries you might not have found otherwise. You’re not going to find a vast selection or Justin Bieber’s latest album, but you will find some gems you didn’t know you were looking for.
Bookstore comparison: your small, beloved, curated independent bookstore.
2) The Amoeba Music Model. Amoeba is a very large record store in the Upper Haight (a neighborhood you may know as Haight Ashbury if you’re not from ’round these parts) that has a massive, gargantuan selection of used CDs for low prices. Buy/sell/trade/awesome. They also have locations in Berkeley and LA.
Bookstore comparison: your Powell’s, your Strand, your basic large urban book clearing house
3) The Costco Model. San Francisco doesn’t have a WalMart, but we do have a Costco. And they sell music. In fact, big box stores sell a whole lot of music: mass merchangs like WalMart and Target accounted for 33% of all album sales in 2010. The selection isn’t great, but they move a lot of CDs. Oh, and I’m guessing you will find the latest Justin Bieber album.
Bookstore comparison: WalMart, Costco, Target
And…… that’s basically it. Could these be the types of physical bookstores/booksellers that survive?
Sure, this is all an inexact comparison as music isn’t quite the same thing as books. Book piracy has not (at least yet) become the existential crisis that it was to music and bookstores have arguably a bit more potential for incorporating live events into their offerings, at least without upsetting the neighbors with loud music (though some record stores definitely have some great shows).
As much as I’m rooting for bookstores, ultimately I find it a bit tough to imagine huge box stores devoted solely to books still around in significant numbers a decade from now. That’s a lot of overhead to support and infrastructure to pay for when they’re competing against online vendors with significantly less or virtually no overhead. It wasn’t a sustainable model for music when a substantial chunk of sales left for Amazon and iTunes, and book box stores are going to face similar challenges.
Still, I also can’t imagine bookstores disappearing entirely. There is too much love for physical books, too much value provided by bookstores, and I think people will still pay a premium to shop local and for a personal touch. It may be a perpetually tough landscape to survive in, but I think the gems will make it.
Oh, and there’s still one more thing working in bookstores’ favor. Whether through a mix of nostalgia or a thirst for authentic experience, vinyl record sales are the highest they’ve been since at least 1991.
What do you think? Are record stores an apt comparison and are there other types of bookstores that will make it?