With news first reported by Reuters that Amazon plans to close all 68 of its physical bookstores in the USA and United Kingdom, there may never have been a better time for readers to shop local, and support independent bookstores.
It is with a certain sense of irony that Amazon is closing its bookstores just 7 years after opening its first store in Seattle. After all, the tax-dodging behemoth did so much to accelerate the decline of longstanding physical bookstore chains like Borders. Indeed, Amazon’s rise from online bookstore to the corporate giant that it is today has often been directly blamed for the shuttering of so many beloved high-street bookshops. As financial analyst Alastair Dryburgh pointed out in an article for Forbes, “The reason that brick-and-mortar bookstores have been disappearing at such a rate is that Amazon destroyed their economics.”
Eyebrows were raised when Amazon announced it was to open its own physical stores – yet it seems the experiment has been relatively short lived.
Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said the rationale from Amazon’s standpoint was simple: “Retail is hard, and they’re discovering that,” he said.
The rise of the independent bookstore?
Yet the closure of Amazon’s physical stores comes at an interesting time for the bookselling industry more generally.
After decades of continued decline, recent years have seen this trend slow, or even reverse.
In the UK, the number of bookstores grew modestly between 2016 and 2019, from 868 to 890. And it was in 2017 that Chief Executive of the Bookseller Association, Tim Godfrey, told The Guardian “I think that we have turned the corner.”
While many bookstores understandably struggled during the first of a series of COVID-related lockdowns, the Book Dealers Association announced last year that the number of independent bookstores actually grew over the last 22 months, with its independent membership increased by 12% since the pandemic started. In the UK, there are now 1,026 independent bookshops: the highest number since 2012.
Meanwhile, across the pond in the USA, independent booksellers also began to increase in number between 2016 and 2019 – rising from 1775 to 1887. However, while the pandemic saw a sharp and sudden decline in independent bookselling firms (falling to 1700), those that survived the first year of COVID seemed to use the opportunity to expand: with the number of physical bookstore locations rising from 2524 to 4100.
All of this seems to suggest that people are starting to recognise the value of physical bookstores, and shopping local to support independent firms in particular – even if it means paying slightly more to avoid lining the pockets of Jeff Bezos.
As Alexandra Petri argued recently in the Washington Post, part of the reason for this is what physical bookstores offer us: “physical bookstores still serve a vital role as showcases for books,” she wrote. “Their ability to bring us into contact with hundreds of things we did not know we wanted is not to be underestimated.”
Writing in the Harvard Political Review, Nathan Cummings goes further, arguing: “Independent booksellers are even better than their chain rivals […] Smaller and less corporate, they leverage their close connections with local communities to provide personalised book recommendations based on store employees’ or frequent customers’ testimonials.”
For anyone who has a favoured local bookstore that they know and love, such testimonials will ring real and true. As NITRB contributor and author of “Philosophers’ Dogs”, Samuel Dodson, says:
“There is something particularly unique and special about going to your local indie bookstore and whiling away the hours, chatting to the owners who have been part of the community for years; who know your literary tastes and go above and beyond to get great books out to readers. All while often organising fantastic community events like book readings and writing classes – which do so much to also support local authors and artists, and bring lovers of books and the written word together.”
So, where to shop local?
Although the trends seem to be moderately encouraging, many authors and bookstore owners are clear that the road ahead is still fraught with risk. In 2021, Managing Director of the Bookseller Association, Meryl Halls, said she was “anticipating that we’re going to lose a slew of [bookstore] businesses”, as things like the cost of living crisis and fallout from Brexit and the Pandemic are felt by consumers and businesses alike.
Meanwhile, Tim Leach, author of The Smile of the Wolf, told NITRB that the last few years have left him feeling “less pessimistic” than he was when considering the future of physical bookstores, but still viewed there situation as “precarious”. He said:
“Waterstones seems to be holding strong from what I can tell, and the renewed desire for physical books definitely bodes well for bookshops. Their position is still precarious, especially the small indie bookshops, but I’m really glad to see them surviving better than I thought they might.”
So, as Amazon closes it’s physical bookstores, where can readers in the USA and UK pick up their books?
The Guardian have put together a short list of some of their reader’s favourite bookstores. While here at NITRB we collated an extensive (but by no means exhaustive) list of independent bookstores and publishers to support during Lockdown, based on responses from our readers and followers on social media.
Yet, there remain literally thousands of local independent bookstores out there: and we want to hear about them! So, if you have a favourite bookstore in mind – or if you run one yourself – then we want to hear from you! Let us know in the comments below, or even drop us an email or message on social media with a few words about your store and what it means to you.