It felt like a sign of the times when Borders flopped in 2011. I remember getting a phone call from home about it; we spoke of it as if it were a fire or earthquake, in hushed and incredulous tones. The liquidation sale that summer, at the outlet nearest to my home, was eerie: a mass exodus and a polite, subdued scramble for whatever we could get. So, embarrassed as I may be to admit this, when I heard my Barnes & Noble—the one I grew up with, where I’d walk to after school to loiter for hours—was closing, I went on a bit of a this-is-the-end, gather-ye-rosebuds rant to myself for a good minute. The short of the long is this: the store couldn’t negotiate a lease extension and will be replaced by an Anthropologie in January 2016.
But this is, all things considered, probably an isolated incident. Barnes & Noble reports a 30.4% increase in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) from $251 million in the previous fiscal year to $327 million this year. Retail profits, though, are down 4.4% to $4.1 billion, with the full year EBITDA retail decreasing 8.9% to $322 million. Their third quarter report for 2014 showed similar declines, as did reports in 2013. And independent bookstores aren’t experiencing the apocalyptic decline most people assume they are; as of last year, 2,094 independent bookstores were listed as members of the American Booksellers Association; currently there are 2,250 listed members—a 7% increase over the past year, and a 36% increase since 2009, when only 1,651 members were listed.
There’s probably a correlation there, one that has some to do with the liquidation of Borders: the fewer larger competitors—i.e., chain stores—the more breathing room there is for smaller, independent bookstores. And the industry itself is still reporting upward trends in profit. That’s not to say that the market as a whole isn’t still largely affected by Amazon and that both the big and little guys feel the effects, but we tend to look at both the chain and independent stores as having some kind mutually exclusive relationship: if one is succeeding, the other is probably failing. Not exactly so.
Then why the doomsday-parading when we hear reports like this? Mainly it’s that a narrative is usually more enticing than tracking data. (Those quarterly and annual reports are not page-turners by any means.) We want to see the underdog succeed—or at least survive another round —and these kinds of episodes scare us; if the prizefighter of the booksellers' market keeps taking hits, how’re the outliers going to survive? As much as I loved working for an independent bookseller, that downtown Barnes & Noble was my bookstore. I’ve been alive longer than it’s been around—21 years—and to see it pack up and try to find new space over rent increases, only to be replaced by a high-end lifestyle store, is a serious bummer. The amount of storefronts like that in the downtown area have increased pretty dramatically in the last few years, and to add insult to injury, there’s an Urban Outfitters and a Free People next to that Barnes & Noble. It’s not as if all three of those stores are hurting for sales; the irony of three storefronts owned by the same company sitting next to one another and outing a bookseller (albeit a major corporation, but still a company that provides important goods, and not just trendy ironic clothing) can’t be lost on anyone.
This is how it works though. The bookstore that employed me just saw its fourth move in January because a bigger space became available for comparable event at the same time their landlord decided to sell the place. The market is tenuous, and so if someone takes a hit it feels like everyone’s suffering a collective blow of shrapnel. Come this next holiday season I’ll be browsing another liquidation sale besides helping out at and shelling out money to my indie store. Supporting bookstores doesn’t have to mean picking sides; ultimately what anyone who’s invested in books wants is for all booksellers to thrive. I certainly want, for that community, a bookstore that is close enough for nearby students to walk to after school, the same way I did. What I do hope to see, though, is a spike in business during and after the holiday season at the independent bookstores around my home. If that happens, it will at least mean that people are still invested in the idea of the storefront and not submitting to the divorced experience of online shopping for the sake of convenience.
If you’d like a list of nearby independent booksellers in the Chicagoland area, IndieBound provides a store locator that you can access here.