A Little History
For those who don't remember (though I suspect many of you do), before the late 1970s, independent stores were the primary retailers of books. Where chains (such as Walden Books or B. Dalton) existed, they were mall operations that generally didn't stock a large number of titles; for used, rare, or non-commercial books, independent stores were the way to go.
The '70s saw the purchase of Barnes & Noble by Len Riggio, however, and within a decade he had converted the company into a retail chain. Barnes & Noble bought B. Dalton in 1987, and by the 1990s, Barnes & Noble was the largest book retailer in the United States. Borders Books (which now, more often than not, is accompanied in print mentions by the adjective "beleaguered") evolved more or less contemporaneously, acquiring Walden after itself being acquired by K-Mart.
All this to say: by the 1990s, independent stores had lost their dominance in the market and were being replaced left and right by outlets of the rapidly expanding book store chains. The chains could offer title selections and deep discounts that the indies couldn't, and as a result, the number of independent booksellers has decreased by over 60% over the past twenty years.
On average, that's an independent book store closing every two days.
The Rise of On-Line Retailing
Granted, on-line retailers like Amazon didn't exactly help the situation. Although Amazon didn't become the monolithic book retailer it is today until the early 2000s, the convenience of on-line shopping and deep discounts similar to those offered by the brick-and-mortar chains (not to mention great deals on shipping and, later, aggressive bestseller and e-book pricing) set the stage for phenomenal growth. They are now the largest book retailer in the world and the largest on-line retailer in the United States.
Needless to say, the combination of lower prices, greater selection, and increased convenience offered by chain book stores and on-line retailers took a significant bite out of independent booksellers' bottom lines. Many closed; others contracted. Several that had planned to invest in their businesses by opening additional locations were unable to do so.
The Fall of the Chains
As I mentioned yesterday, right now I'm predicting that the major brick-and-mortar chains will, without significant reallocation of their business to the Internet, be all but gone within a decade. The decrease in physical print runs coupled with the increasing cost of warehousing, shipping, and rent for physical storefronts has already caused store closures for both Borders and Barnes & Noble. As e-books replace physical copies as the go-to format for mass production and consumption, the sprawling physical presence of brick-and-mortar chain retailers will become unnecessary and unsustainable. That is to say: easy come, easy go.
While some think that this will lead to the complete domination of the market by electronic retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble's .com operation, I think that consumer demand for physical books (albeit reduced) will remain strong, and physical store locations offering in-person browsing, readings, community events, book signings, and immediate access to used/rare books will ensure the survival of independent book stores. Moreover—if they play their cards right and participate as much as possible in the new media and formats—they could see something of a renaissance.
The Independent Renaissance
Again, as mentioned yesterday (and above), I think independent book stores offer experiences and benefits that are simply unavailable from e-retailers like Amazon. Amazon cannot host authors for readings or signings; it cannot function as a community center; it cannot grant you a quiet space to read or meet friends for coffee.
As the economy begins to recover and the e-revolution continues, I think it's pretty unavoidable that 1.) the chains will continue to close underperforming stores, 2.) existing indepedent book stores will begin to see their sales recover, and 3.) more money will be available for the creation of new small businesses (indie booksellers included).
Beyond this, however, independent stores can take advantage of social networking sites (like Twitter), electronic ordering systems for quick acquisition of new titles from publishers (instead of relying on paper catalogs), and potentially even in-house distribution of POD titles and e-books. This goes back to my theory that, over the next ten years, the industry will see a lot of consolidation; I see no reason why indies can't offer e-books as well as the age-old experience of browsing physical shelves.
The independent book store of tomorrow will be able to cheaply print copies of books that it doesn't have in stock, will be able to offer access to e-books, will promote local authors and host events, and will actively participate in on-line discussions about literature via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. They will adapt to changes in culture and technology, and they will continue to be relevant so long as reading remains relevant.
And despite all the doom and gloom surrounding this industry, remember: reading has been relevant for thousands of years, mes auteurs. That's not about to change anytime soon.