A rather biting article appeared in The Guardian in which brick-and-mortar bookstore chain Waterstones’ founder Tim Waterstone said he doesn’t feel guilty about the role that the megachain played in killing indie bookshops in the UK. At the time comparable to Borders or Barnes and Noble, Waterstones had the same deadly effect: sweep in, undercut the little guy, then close the doors when profit margins fell. This left towns all across the country without any bookstores, big or small.
What would prompt Waterstone to take such a cynical view of the part his company played in this? First, his own experience. According to The Guardian, Waterstone claims to have started out as an independent bookseller himself, albeit one that made a lot of money due to disrupting the notion of a quaint bookshop by offering dedicated staff and convenient hours of operation.
But the idea that a single chain store–or a single online retailer, for that matter–can destroy an industry is a faulty premise. After all, who made the choice to head to the megastore? Or to click “add to cart?” The customers themselves did that on their own.
There are even more factors at play when it comes to destroying something as valuable as indie bookstores. As a business that often relies on walk-up or browsing behavior, these shops have to be visible and accessible, as well as being “on the way” in order to take advantage of foot traffic related to nearby businesses. When landlords jack up the rent on a tiny shop just because a more valuable store has opened in the area, no amount of marketing or bookselling will make up the difference.
Of course, the publishers aren’t making it easy, either. For example, profit margins don’t mean the same thing when your store considers less than one hundred sales a day to be good business. Stocking titles can be problematic for stores, and the risk of ending up with unsold inventory that cannot be returned for any kind of money is too great for some stores to chance; customers walk away without the newest book they went in for, and call it up on Amazon on their phones as they leave.
While indie bookstores are enjoying a slight period of optimism and increased growth right now, the only thing that will keep them open is if the people with the most direct influence–namely, the customers and the publishers–work to do so. Blaming Amazon or even the big box bookstores is stupid at this point; consumers can buy literally anything online these days, yet the world is filled with retailers that sell those same items. Book buying should be no different.