Bookstores, Literacy… and Economics

Although I was surrounded by books growing up, I can’t recall ever going to a bookstore to obtain a book until I was in college.  I was a frequent visitor to the local library, and there were the paperback SF novels my mother picked up at the local drugstore, but bookstores weren’t really a part of my orbit, and their absence didn’t seem to affect my voracious reading habit.  As an author, however, I’ve become very aware of bookstores, and over the past twenty years, I’ve entered over a thousand different bookstores, in forty-two of the fifty states, over 120 in the space of three weeks on one tour.  And because I was once an economist I kept track of the numbers and various other economics-related aspects of those bookstores.

The conclusion?  Well… there are many, but the one that concerns me the most are the changes in bookselling and where books can be obtained and what those changes mean for the future functional literacy of the United States.

When I first became a published novelist thirty years ago, for example, the vast majority of malls had small bookstores, usually a Waldenbooks or a B. Dalton, often two of them, one at each end of the mall, or perhaps a Brentano’s or another chain. And I was very much aware of them, because I spent more times in malls than I really wanted to, which is something that occurs when one has pre-teen and teenaged daughters.  According to the statistics, at that time, there were over 1500 Waldenbooks in malls nationwide, and hundreds of B. Daltons, not to mention all the other smaller bookstores. Today, the number of Waldenbooks stores totals less than 200 hundred, and the majority of those were closed because Borders Books, the present parent company of Waldenbooks, did not wish to continue them once it acquired the chain, preferring to replace many small stores with larger Borders stores.  Even so, Borders has something less than five hundred superstores.  The same pattern holds true for Barnes and Noble, the parent of the now-or-almost-defunct B. Dalton stores.  The actual number of bookstores operated by these two giant chains is roughly half what they operated twenty-five years ago.  At the same time, the growth of the chain superstores has squeezed out hundreds of smaller independent bookstores.

Prior to 1990, there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 book wholesalers in the United States, and there were paperback book racks in all manner of small retail establishments.  Today there are only a handful of wholesalers, and the neighborhood book rack is a thing truly of the past.

Add to this pattern the location of the book superstores.  Virtually all of these stores are located in the most affluent sections of the areas they serve.  In virtually every city I’ve visited in the last fifteen years, there are huge sections of the city, sometimes as much as 60 percent of the area, if not more, where there is no bookstore within miles, and often no convenient public transport. There are fewer and fewer small local bookstores, and most large bookstores are located in or near upscale super malls.  Very few, if any, malls serving the un-affluent have bookstores.  From a short-term economic standpoint, this makes sense for the mega-store chains.  From a cultural standpoint, and from a long-term customer development standpoint, it’s a disaster because it limits easy access to one of the principal sources of books largely to the most affluent segments of society.

What about the book sections in Wal-Marts?  The racks and carrels in the average super Wal-Mart number roughly a third of those in the size of the smallest of the Waldenbooks stores I used to visit, and the range of books is severely limited, effectively to the best-sellers of each genre.

Then, because of recent economic pressures, the local libraries are seeing their budgets cut and cut, as are school libraries – if the school even has a library.

Research done for publishing firms has shown that so-called impulse book purchasing – the kind once made possible be neighborhood book racks and ubiquitous small mall bookstores, accounted for a significant percentage of new readers… and the comic book racks that were next to the book racks provided a transition from the graphic format to the books.

Some have claimed that books will be replaced by the screen and the I-phone and other screen “aps,” and that well may be… for those who can already read… but the statistics show that while fewer Americans are totally illiterate, an ever-increasing percentage is effectively functionally illiterate.

Is that functional illiteracy any wonder… when it really does take a book to start learning to read and when books are becoming harder and harder to come by for those who need them the most?

8 thoughts on “Bookstores, Literacy… and Economics”

  1. Frank says:

    With regard to the availability of books, I agree with your observations, and believe that the library issue is the most concerning. Stores that sell books, in this economy, will realistically be lead by the profit motive, which, although avaricious…is, at least, pure. Libraries are/should be a primary investment of a civilization in its own future. Unfortunately, as I work in local government I can attest to the accuracy of your comments about the budget pressure on libraries. This needs to be overcome by rank and file political pressure on the elected officials who prioritize funds. Libraries are the most fundamental “bootstrap” with which those lucky enough to live in our country can pull themselves up by.

    Another thought in this line would be the future of the physical book. Being a “boomer” I am a little old fashioned, and am very attached to real books. I work with a computer a great part of the day, and would always want to write on one, but reading, especially for pleasure, feels most comfortable with a real physical book. I’ve tried kindles and ibooks, etc…just not the same. I’m also concerned that the security of electronic books will be forfeit when prevalent enough, and that that will, in turn, act to devalue writing because the avenue to sell the “book” might be circumvented by electronic pirating.

    At any rate, I was and am an avid fan of special effects and computer graphics, I am just concerned that ensuing generations will find books less and less available and convenient…which will be a great loss to all…most specifically them and those to follow.

  2. Bob says:

    Over the years of my book-buying life I too have seen the same patterns of change as you.
    The first books I bought were 10 cent comics at a nearby supermarket, but before that our 3-room 1st-8th grade school had a small library, enough to tempt and tantalize young minds.
    From comics I graduated to paperbacks at a local drugstore…and more comics. Then high school with a well equipped library and our move to a small town (pop. 1200) with a public library (thank you, Andrew Carnegie). I never cracked a textbook after the first week of school but my library cards were always full.
    The local paper mill was a godsend for a teen with a love for reading. Friends and family who were employees, and managers who thought nothing of the risk of half-grown kids in their facility, allowed me to search routinely thru their stacks of recycled paper for books.
    After high school I moved to Indy for college. Bookstores abounded. A state library branch close by. Heaven for a reader.
    There was not much opportunity for reading while I served my 2-year hitch in the Army. And in VN forget it. Staying alive was more important.
    As a civilian again bookstores were still common in the area in the larger towns. And local libraries still well-funded.
    Ten or 15 years ago the local bookstore in the nearby town closed, where I’d been introduced to your books, Robert Jordan, and so many other authors. The economics of business in a town of ~15,000 no longer supported it. Soon even the nearby used bookstores were gone.
    Now all my buying is online unless I’m doing corporate travel to our facilities in cites where the malls you describe still have bookstores. My online purchasing is less. Without the ability to “shop” a book; handle the book; read the cover synopsis and descriptions; “feel” the material, I try fewer new authors. The experience online is just not the same.
    And many of our library visitors are more interested in browsing the internet than reading its books.
    Electronic readers may be fine, but the tactile and tangible feel of a book is the better experience.
    I too wonder about the future of a nation that does not treasure the written word.

  3. Mage says:

    If you look back at early Andre Norton SF you’ll see that she has most of her characters unable to read. All computer access is voice both ways. She of course started her career as a librarian. 🙂

  4. Brad W. says:

    I share Mr. Modesitt’s concerns! A well read citizenry is so important for all the obvious reasons.

  5. Dan says:

    While I respect Mr. Modesitt and can find no fault in his observations and reported statistics I must strongly disagree with his conclusions.

    Students graduating from high school today have speant their entire educational lives in the age of the internet. From text messaging, email, twitter, facebook, blogs, and other modern technology sources people today, particularly the younger generation, are reading and especially WRITING far more than ever before. In other blog posts (if I am recalling correctly) Mr. Modesitt has decried the modern overflow of information and multitasking, but these same sources of distraction are often text based or have text-enhanced functions and features. In my opinion, if you look at most modern professionals you’ll find that they read and write more than their equivilents from 30 years ago.

    I feel the heart of the misunderstanding is the definition of “funtional literacy” as it is usually defined. You could say that to be fully functional in the Internet age a person must have a vocabulary and knowledge base far different than before the age of the personal computer. Similarly, there would be literacy skills that persons from an earlier generation would need that would be far less relevant today: the best example is the skill of letter writing.

    We may not be there yet, but eventually literacy in our society will be so different from what it was before that comparisions to literacy standards common in the 60s and 70s would be like evaluating the modern comprehension of the original Chaucer and using those numbers to declare illiteracy rising.

    New directions and definitions of literacy should be anticipated and applauded not worried over. Humans will communicate and that communication will always involve reading and writing. I would agree that book sales are likely falling and certainly bookstores are disapearing, but in some ways this could be considered to be caused by changes in modern literacy, rather than the cause of it.

  6. Mayhem says:

    The biggest issue I find with bricks & mortar bookstores is that the selection of titles is declining sharply over the years, and that they all carry the same stock. None but the largest can afford to carry a significant back catalogue, and genre books are being increasingly sidelined.

    Actually, this got me thinking, so I started hunting for figures.

    The one that really got to me was
    “2004. “Of the 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies.”
    — Publisher’s Weekly, July 17, 2006
    Note: The 1.2 million is closer to the number of books in print than the number of titles published for the year. ”

    So of the total number of books sold that year in the US, 95% sold less than 1000 copies and 79% were under 100 copies.

    What that suggests to me is that the vast majority of books simply never made it to the bookshelves or if they did, never stayed long enough to be noticed. I mean, if only 1000 copies of a book are sold in a country of 250 million, then the vast majority of people simply are not reading.

  7. Mayhem says:

    Another issue rearing its head over here in the UK is libraries being forced to close due to council budget issues, and the figures bandied about show the libraries only spend around 8% of their budget on actually buying books.

    I wonder what would happen to the publishing industry if the libraries were freed to buy twice as many books.
    According to CILIP there are 4517 public libraries and 979 academic libraries in the UK. If just half of them bought one copy of a book when it is published, you’d already far exceed the figures above. Granted they would soon run out of places to put them, but surely the job of a library is to have as wide a selection as possible.

    Apparently these days however the job of a library is to have lots of computers for those unable to own one themselves. My local branch has a depressingly small selection, and no longer even has an out-of-hours return slot due to vandalism, so it is actually quite an effort to get books out and back in.

    Sigh. The more I look at this as an avid reader, the more depressed I get. I really don’t envy people writing as a career.

  8. Mayhem says:

    Actually some good news on the library front, from an article last year.
    The key part I saw there was the section on Hillingdon where when the choice of books doubled, the number of loans went up fivefold. Apparently increasing choice meant more people were willing to visit and choose. Who knew.

    It’d be interesting to see if the same thing happens in bookstores. I wonder too if a chain store could get its branches to specialise more, say the one in this mall does more scifi, the one in that mall does more romance and so on, and whether this would increase sales once it is known. Easy enough to carry a wider range when you have more space for it, and I know I am willing to travel quite a long way for a better shopping experience.

    At the end of the day, Amazon may have a huge range, but there really is nothing like a good bookshop for atmosphere.

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