The Demise of The Independent Bookstore

For many years now, people have been bemoaning the loss of the local, independent bookseller. A few decades back it was big chains like Border’s and Barnes and Noble threatening the independent bookstore. Now it’s internet retailers like Amazon that are the big threat, and which are also threatening the chains. Here in Berkeley, we recently lost two great bookstores, Cody’s and Black Oak Books. (Although Cody’s demise was as much due to unwise and ludicrously optimistic expansion as it was to competition, and Black Oak still lives on without their flagship storefront.)

I’ve never understood why this is a bad thing. To be sure, many small, independent bookstores have their charms and are pleasant places to visit and browse for books and their staff generally is more knowledgeable than that of big chains, but by their nature they have limited inventory. The competition that is killing them has far superior selection and makes available a much wider range of books at lower prices. The independent bookstore is more attractive as an ineffable ideal than as a cold, commercial reality. The reality is that more and better books are available to more people at lower prices than ever in history. You no longer have to live in Manhattan or San Francisco to find great books. The guy in the cabin with a DSL line in Elkbutt, Montana has as much access to books as the Fifth Avenue socialite.

Then the inimitable Clay Shirky comes along and summarizes the situation and puts forward a potential solution, a vision of what the independent bookstore could become. It is well worth a read.

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