Since the tech boom of the 1980s and 90s, tech has continued to revolutionize all facets of our lives as it renders one thing after the next obsolete. From cassettes to DVDs to watching Netflix and being addicted to the 6-inch supercomputers that live in our pockets, technology regularly phases out the old and replaces it with what it deems “faster,” “more efficient,” or “more powerful”. Bookstores have been no exception to this trend. While Amazon began as a mere online bookstore, it has continued on this trajectory to not only provide millions of books at the quick tap of a finger but also launched products like the Kindle to help provide an accessible reader to access all of its digital offerings.
While the internet flourishes, bookstores are facing a different reality. As people shop for clothes, home goods, and even groceries online, bookstores have been hit the hardest. Alongside small businesses being part of the downward trend, even major big-box retailers such as Barnes & Nobles and Borders in the US have had to close hundreds of locations as sales have declined.
COVID-19 has quickly accelerated that downward trajectory. In March of this year, the US Census Bureau found that bookstore sales had plummeted by 33.4%. Following this sharp decline, sales continued to drop down another 11.1%. This came as more and more readers turned to online alternatives like Bookshop and Amazon as opposed to brick and mortar stores which were forced to shut. But with current trends, COVID-19 is not the catalyst causing the shift. Rather, it has only accelerated the gradual decline that has been taking place for the past decade.
This loss of bookstores, though, has massive ramifications. Bookstores extend beyond just the buying and selling of books. They inevitably create a community of bibliophiles who read and think about literature. At independent bookstores people often feel like they are known on a one-on-one level, having books recommended to them and engaging in discussion over the latest work they dove into. For many, this serves as a source of livelihood and creates a safe
–haven for those whose activity is usually a very individualistic affair. In the UK, some argue that they are the most essential part of any High Street. With this level of impact, the gradual fading of bookstores and shift to e-reading and online shopping has not only devastated the local economy but phased out an entire community of literary lovers.
In fact, the most dissatisfying part for readers is that online shopping has eliminated the thrill of discovery at a store. Where before you could spend hours on end, sipping coffee and flipping through faded pages and looking for that perfect good, Amazon and other e-retailers track your internet browsing and recommend books based on what has been reviewed well or is algorithmically similar to other things you may have read previously and this destroys the experience of coming across a hidden gem.
Nevertheless, there is a slight light at the end of the tunnel. The average customers of bookstores continue to be college-educated middle-class individuals. As the percentage of the population that is college-educated continues to increase, there is a possibility that purchases from this increased proportion of higher education graduates can partially reverse the trend.
Furthermore, some retailers are seeing the power that brick-and-mortar can have on customers. Since 2015 when Amazon opened its first physical Amazon Bookstore to their acquisition of Whole Foods which has spread their reach across America, Amazon has explained that they believe the future of retail to be a hybrid model between online and in-person shopping. This leaves a sliver of hope for bookstores. With many still enjoying the feeling of flipping through the pages of books to find the perfect one, Amazon’s expanding network of physical bookstores, currently at 17 locations, is not showing signs of stopping anytime soon. Only the future will show what is in store for bookstores but nonetheless their disappearance has only heightened in likelihood.