Did the Rise of Amazon(and its Kindle) Doom the Brick & Mortar Book Store?

These days there is a lot of talk about how, though it’s great that the Kindle is taking off and eBooks are becoming ubiquitous, it’s really a shame that the local bookseller is becoming a dying breed as a result.  It is definitely a little bit sad to have so few options when you want to go out shopping.  I miss the smaller stores.  What brings all this to mind today is the news that Borders(NYSE:BGP) is filing Bankruptcy this week.

Now, admittedly you can’t call Borders a small retailer anymore, but that is how they started.  The fact is, book stores in general just aren’t doing as well since websites, specifically Amazon(NASDAQ:AMZN), became the go-to retailer for all your reading needs.  As much as many stores, Borders in particular but others as well, try to diversify their product in addition to doing everything they can think of to attract readers, it’s hard to maintain the local face of a company in spite of declining sales.  Even Barnes & Noble(NYSE:BKS), pretty much the big name in books for as long as I can remember, isn’t exactly doing as well for itself as it needs to be in spite of their efforts (and successes) with the Nook.

Given my own enthusiasms, I would like to give credit to the Kindle.  It’s great hardware, has an impressive platform behind it, and the selection that we have available as a result is second to none.  In many ways it’s like you’ve got a book store in your pocket, assuming you prefer garments with slightly over sized pockets.

Much as I’d like to place credit there, though, the trend began before the Kindle was more than a thought and a hope.  Maybe not even that.  This year is the first time the eBook is competing with the paperback on equal terms from the start, and it’s definitely the first time we can expect to see any comparable numbers between Kindle book sales and the print medium as a whole.  eBooks are a big deal, but they’re just now realizing their potential.

What changed the game for the Brick & Mortar crowd, the way I see things, was the convenience and the successful marketing of the Amazon.com website.  It wasn’t the first place to buy books online, but it has had a great selection from the start and the best selection anywhere since fairly soon after it got moving.  Add in the functionality as a used book vendor, the inclusion of other media (and non-media) options besides books in the same purchase without there being any effect on your dedicated book browsing, and the decent review system that lets you improve your chances of getting the most for your money and there are options that no book store, small or large, has been able to keep up with.

So yeah, in a very real way I think that it is Amazon’s work that we see when book stores close down left and right.  But they did it by giving people what they wanted and doing a better job than the stores that closed.  Sure, I’ll miss being able to walk into a Borders when they’re gone (as most of them will be soon), but given the choice I know I’d rather shop through Amazon most of the time anyway.  Apparently most people feel the same way.

11 thoughts on “Did the Rise of Amazon(and its Kindle) Doom the Brick & Mortar Book Store?”

  1. I really do miss having a great used bookstore in my area. Over the past 10 years, all are now gone. I resent that. When I want to get out of house, I have little desire to go to a bar or dance place, rather to wander around a bookstore which had prices I could afford! (maybe share a coffee with someone too) And as a poor scholar, I find the prices now just insane both for new digital and physical book now! Now, as it was many, many centuries ago, only the well-off can afford books. Lastly, shipping costs are a hinderance too…right, 4.00 for a 2.00 book. :-(

  2. The internet in general killed these stores. Borders and Barnes and Noble necessarily have a very limited selection compared to the Amazon. Still, as Meitnik mentions in his comment, the Brick and Mortars needed to find a compelling reason to attract people to their store as a place to get out of the house to go to. I don’t know if they experimented with new store concepts in certain places, but the Borders near here is exactly the same Borders of 1996, even though the retail landscape has radically changed around them. Failure was their destiny with that attitude.

  3. Amazon really has changed the game, but not completely. Independent bookstores in my area were griping for years about Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other massive corporate outfits that supposedly robbed them of their business. Most of those that griped are gone now. But there’s a sizable community of independent shops selling used and new books that still remains – perhaps nowhere near what there used to be, but then, there’s less demand now. These bookstores that remain strong do so by maintaining fair customer-oriented business practices, by pandering to a niche (art or travel, for example), or by offering an irresistible environment that attracts return customers with comfortable seating, a delicious café, and decor that is an improvement on your own living room. Businesses have always had to adjust: were mail-order catalogs the end of the department store?
    Brick and mortar stores have to focus on giving customers the things they won’t get online: a knowledgable, friendly staff to offer informed advice; a change of scenery that’s pleasing to all the senses (including taste!); the freedom to sample any part of a book, to browse shelves without restrictions. I stopped going to my local Barnes & Noble when they removed the majority of comfortable seating (I like to sit and read a couple chapters of a book before buying it). My hope is that the eBook will bring an end to mega-giant bookstores like Barnes & Noble, which are quickly becoming obsolete, and that the gap they leave will be filled by quirky independent stores with an emphasis on the highly personal and subjective art of reading.

  4. Hmm. Well, on the one hand, I think it’s great that people are getting Kindles and buying mostly eBooks. People will read more (and hopefully more people will read), and more writers will be able to make a living off what they do. There’s nothing better than that for reading.

    But change and the death of certain ways of doing things can be sad. If you’re one of those people who is very sad that bookstores are dying, maybe you should switch back to buying books at your local stores, because a lot of people aren’t going to be sad enough to do that. We can have both if enough people try to make the bookstore live on.

    What the “converted” Kindle users need are places to go with our Kindles and read. :) The seating available my local Barnes & Nobles, Half Price Books and coffee shops is fairly subpar. We need places more comfortable than your typical coffee shop or bookstore. These places need to be designed for reading. Have a cafe with healthy food and drinks. Serve the best local bagels and pastries. You can have music, but play something instrumental, quiet and soothing. Play different music in different areas. Classical in one area, ambient in another, and have one area that is soundproof and has no music, and people are urged to be quiet, etc.

    If you have really comfortable reclining chairs and rooms, who knows, maybe you could charge a membership. Maybe have a “VIP” area which cost more and only allow VIP members there. Maybe have massage chairs there. Hahahah. Who knows. You get the point.

    It’d be about the experience. The experience would attract people, keep them coming back, and maybe they’d pay for that. People want to get away from home, and they want an experience. Who woulda thought people would pay for coupons? Well, they do and that business is booming. :) (Groupon, Living Social etc)

  5. I bought my Kindle about two months ago, and as a hardware device, I love it. That being said, I have no intention of buying a single DRM-ed book from Amazon until they guarantee portability…that is, if next year I decide I like the Nook, or a Sony, or some other e-reader better, I can move my content over. What worries me is that the Kindle is driving physical bookstores out of business AND locking people (and their libraries) to Amazon for the foreseeable future. Want a historical example? The iPod is a great device, but iTunes killed the physical record/CD store, and has locked a *lot* of people onto the Apple platform (either because of the DRM, or because they aren’t tech-savvy to undertake the headache of moving). Sure, you may not want to move right now…but what about in two years? Or five years?

  6. I have always loved bookstores but many have struggled and closed long before Amazon came along. The chains have catered too heavily to “best sellers” and then were hurt when big-box stores started selling the same titles at a discount the bookstore chains did not offer. Then came Amazon.

    The selection, price (even with shipping), option to find used copies and Amazon’s overall service was just the major blow that could not be overcome. The success of e-book readers was not the cause but it has opened the curtain to reveal how unsustainable it has been for the bookstore chains.

    I resisted buying from Amazon but when I struggled to find a copy at a local bookstore over and over again I realized that Amazon (and other online book sellers) were in many ways the only way I could obtain copies of books for gifts and my personal collection.

    Last year I purchased a Kindle because it allows me to continue collecting books but not take up so much space in my home. It also allows me to have a wide variety of books I like to read (mostly non-fiction) when travelling but does not add space or weight to my luggage. I still buy hard copy books when the Kindle price is more than I can purchase a hard copy. The recent demands of publishers has resulted in an increase in ebook prices that only hurts the publishing industry, but that will hopefully soon pass. I look forward to the day when I can shift most of my book collection to an ebook reader.

  7. I can’t remember the last time I set foot in a bookstore. I’ve been an Amazon customer from the start; they’ve been the first place I go to for books (and now eBooks) for as long as they’ve been selling them. I own a Kindle, and while I don’t exclusively buy eBooks, it’s become my preferred format.

    As far as the Kindle killing the brick and mortar retailers… Kindle may have been the final nail in the coffin, but the decline of B&N and Borders has been going on for a while. It’s simply the inexorable march of technology. Look at the DVD rental business, for example. Netflix forced Blockbuster into bankruptcy b/c they didn’t have the overhead of retail stores. Now they’re trying to bury them by shifting to video streaming which lowers their costs of sales to nearly nothing (stuffing envelopes and postage is a huge amount of their overheard).

    That technology may not be ready for the masses just yet (this is arguable, I suppose), but you have to remember that eReaders were around long before the Kindle. But it was the Kindle with its eInk display and Amazon’s ease of purchasing that catapulted eReaders into the mainstream. You can see a similar phenomenon with the iPad. Tablet computers have been around for 10 years or more, but sometimes it takes that one killer device to really shake the foundations of an industry. I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re seeing a similar thing happen with traditional publishing and brick and mortar bookstores.

  8. I’m sad. As a small, independant bookshop owner I see a lot of people coming in, looking and then buying at the big chainstores/Amzazons of the world, ebooks because its cheaper, portable etc. But they still want to look at the books first, they still want the shop there but they don’t want to support it. We need people to purchase, that is how we can buy more books to stock, and feed our families. Internet shopping is convenient, but think about how often you check things out in the bricks and mortar shops first. Don’t just think of this instant, think about what will happen in the future – jobs (for your kids), shops, knowledge, support.

  9. Indie bookstores were complaining about business lost to Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers long before Amazon became an issue. The original complaint was the discounting of bestselling hardbacks, thus skimming the cream of retail sales.

  10. I don’t know. The ‘brick and mortar’ shops that I go to seem to be still humming along. I didn’t know that Borders has fallen apart? Mind you, the quality of it has really dropped. I still head in there hoping to pick something interesting, and it seems every week they’ve reduced stock and increased prices.
    I think independent bookstores will always have problems from here on though.

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