It wasn’t that long ago that Christmas shopping for me included two essential stops: Virgin Megastore and Tower Records. Both retail chains which had been pillars of the industry vanished overnight. And I now find myself wondering if during Christmas 2011 if the same thing will happen to Barnes & Nobel and Borders? Just as Napster and later iTunes devastated chain record shops I’m already seeing the signs that the Kindle and the iPad are delivering body blows to huge book stores.
Part of what seems to be going on is that the hardcore readers are becoming rapid adapters of eBooks. These readers are are the literacy equivalent of music snobs — they’re the folks who are reading several books a month. However I see a key difference: Music snobs tended to look down upon those poorly done mp3 files as being crude when put next to the quality of CDs, however hardcore readers don’t seem to have that issue so they’re leading the charge.
It’s because of this that I think the mega bookstores are doomed: While most of what they push upfront are books with a celebrity on the cover, it’s the army of these veracious readers who support the warehouse scale of these stores. After all if you just focused on the top 50 bestsellers you can cram that into a magazine store — you just don’t need the floorspace that goes on for miles.
As someone trained in graphic design the thought of this all breaks my heart — after all physical books are an artform to me. That said I had the exact same physical attachment to record albums, a medium that allowed a designer to create a mini-poster that could be a real work of art. My sense is that like vinyl physical books will be here to stay, but instead of being sold in mega marts you’ll see more boutique stores that specialize in subjects from cooking to comic books.
In fact I think this can usher in the next golden age of bookstores. In many ways Barnes & Nobel and Borders had a Walmart effect on mom-and-pop bookstores over the last twenty years: This could very well be pay back time for those hearty operations that survived. In fact every time I go by what use to be Tower Records I still come across Other Music which is a small hole-in-the-wall operation that carried the cool stuff that you just wouldn’t find in Tower.