Return to the Past?

After finishing a whirlwind tour – seven cities and some of their suburbs in seven days – I’ve seen a trend I noticed years ago becoming even stronger… and more than a little disturbing.  Once upon a time, books were so expensive and hard to come by that only the very wealthy possessed more than a few, and most people had none.  Libraries were few and reserved effectively for the well-off, because few of those less than well-off could read or could manage access to them.

What does that have to do with today or my tour?

Only the fact that, despite such innovations as ebooks and e-readers, in a subtle yet substantive way we’re on a path toward the past in so far as books are concerned.  Yes, millions of books are printed and millions are now available, or soon will be, in electronic formats, but obtaining access to those books is actually becoming more and more difficult for an increasing percentage of the population across the United States.  With the phase-out of small mall bookstores, more than 2,000 bookstores that existed thirty years ago are now gone.  While they were initially replaced by some 1300 “big-box” bookstores, with the collapse and disappearance of Borders and consolidation by other chains, the numbers of chain bookstores has now dropped at least 25%, if not more, in the last few years.  Add to that the number of independent bookstores that have closed, and the total shrinkage in bookstores is dramatic.

Unhappily, there’s another aspect of this change that’s far worse.  Overwhelming numbers – over 90%  – of large bookstores in the United States are situated in “destination” locations, invariably near or in wealthy areas of cities and suburbs, reachable easily only by automobile.  At the same time, funding for public and school libraries is declining drastically, and, in many cases, funds for books are slim or non-existent and have been for years.

But what about electronic books… ebooks?

To read an ebook, one needs an e-reader of some sort, or a computer.  In these economically straitened times, adults and children from less affluent backgrounds, especially those near or below the poverty level, have difficulty purchasing an e-reader, let alone ebooks. Somehow, this fact tends to be overlooked, again, as if reading might not even be considered a problem for the economically disadvantaged

In the seven cities I visited on my recent book tour, every single chain bookstore or large independent was located in or adjacent to an affluent area. Not a single major bookstore remains in less affluent areas.  As I mentioned in a much earlier blog, this is not a new pattern, but the trend is becoming almost an absolute necessity, apparently, for new bookstore locations. Yet who can blame the bookstores? Small mall bookstores aren’t nearly so profitable as trendy clothes retailers, and most mall rents are based on the most profitable stores. Hard times in the book industry have resulted in the closure of unprofitable stores, and those stores are almost invariably located in less affluent areas. These economic realities also affect the WalMart and grocery store book sections as well.  In particular, grocery retailers in less affluent areas are less likely to carry books at all.

But no matter what the reason, what the economic considerations may be, when a city and suburbs totaling more than two million people have less than ten major bookstores, with only one major independent, and all of those stores are located in economically well-off areas, I can’t help but worry that we are indeed on a road to a past that we shouldn’t be revisiting.




5 thoughts on “Return to the Past?”

  1. Mr. Croft says:

    I’m not really adding anything but my supporting observation to this.

    I’d visited Salt Lake City this spring and hoped to tap in on the “local author” vibe to obtain some of your more difficult to come-by books off the shelf. Coming from Edmonton (Canada) I was absolutely astonished looking in the phone book that there appear to be fewer book-stores in the SL valley than there are of a single chain (Coles -re: small mall brand) in Edmonton.

    That comparison leaves out all of the big box, used & independent stores available locally as well. Considering the disparity of population (just over 1000000 in Edmonton) this is even worse than it appears.

    The absolutely dismal selection of materials in those non-LDS stores I was able to visit simply exacerbates the problem.

    The decline in availability and quality is definitely not an overstatement.


  2. Joe says:

    I found it interesting that the Occupiers at Wall Street set up a library in Zuccotti park with over 5000 books in it (catalogued on, and that unaffiliated people from the neighborhood came to borrow books from it because their local libraries had been closed. Most of those books have since been thrown away by Sanitation Workers during the recent “cleaning” of the park.

    The fact that people go to the effort of setting up their own libraries indicates there is more hunger for books than market-based arguments would suggest. Unfortunately, many mayors find it acceptable to cut libraries and schools, but do not save on police presence at legal demonstrations.

  3. Cliff says:

    Well I find the exact opposite to be true, it is far easier to get books now than it was 15 years ago, especially in small towns.

    I am back in a small city, about 45 minutes away from the Mayo Clinic, that I lived in for 2 years back in the early ’90s.

    There are several colleges in this city, and back then there were same number of bookstores as there are now.

    But the bookstores were not very good then, and they are not any better now.

    Back then I had to travel 45 minutes to get to real bookstore if I wanted one of your book new in Hard Cover when it came out, otherwise I had to order it from local bookstore and wait couple of weeks or longer to get it.

    Now I can get it in a minute or two from Amazon or B&N online as an Ebook minutes after it is published/released.

    Or I can get a dead tree book delivered to my house the day it is released from Amazon.

    Also there are actually a LOT more books available now than in the past.

    Any phone or electronic device that is supported by Amazon or Barnes & Noble can be used to buy Ebooks, not to mention computers.

    You can probably get a portable device to read or order Ebooks on for free or very close to free, certainly for less than the price on one hard cover book.

    Business and many individuals have to update computers every few years just to run the software they need.

    Since Ebooks are not much if anything more than a text document basically any computer can be used for reading them. Even computers so old that they are not useable for anything else.

    Additionally if you do have a cell phone, and many Middle School students seem to have them now days, you can get more books anywhere you have phone signal or wifi.

    Not to mention the fact you can literally carry several normal sized libraries worth of books in your pocket.

    A 32 GB memory card can hold about 28,000 books, the 32 GB Micro SDHC card for a cell phone is about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of those hard coated pieces of gum from Dentyne and others that come 12 to a pack.

    You can get a Credit Card sized holder
    that holds 10 of those cards.

    So with that holder filled with memory cards, plus the card in your phone, you could have 308,000 books in your pocket.

    That would be a little less than 1/100 of the 33 million or so books in the Library of Congress.

    If you really wanted to you could carry the entire 33 million books from the Library of Congress as Ebooks in your pocket without noticing it much.

    That strikes me as a substantial improvement.

    1. It’s a substantial improvement for those with education/knowledge and/or resources, but not for those without such. Everything you mention requires habits and a knowledge base that’s lacking in a large percentage of the poorest families.

  4. Cliff says:

    I very respectfully disagree, I grew up pretty poor.

    I know from personal experience what it is like to not have enough food to eat to make the hunger pains go away, and I don’t mean for a day or week either.

    I have done social work and other jobs were I worked with or dealt with people that had far worse childhoods than I did myself. And more than a few that had far worse adulthood than myself.

    My comments are based on that perspective, as well as the advice I have given to those very same people.

    Free internet access is pretty common, in places as varied as McDonalds to Public Libraries.

    It would take some desire or motivation for someone to find things like Amazon or Barnes and Noble online, they would have to type “book” into google.

    Amazon even offers some Ebooks for free. But with those companies you don’t even need to own an electronic device to read their books, only need to have access to such a device.

    If a person has any persistence they would eventually find

    Project Gutenberg has many many great free books. Things like Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt just to mention two.

    I will concede it would take some skill, luck, or some work to figure out that many of these <$20 phones will support free Kindle for Android, or other phone, software$20-cell-phones/

    But not an excessive amount in my opinion.

    You would have to find amazon, Ebooks, & their free Kindle software, then look at the specs to see what kind of phone you needed.

    But most of that stuff is advertised, so you don't have to be looking for it, they are trying to get you to use it.

    I am fairly confident that bookstores and access to books is not the or even "a" limiting factor here.

    Lack of functional literacy, along with the lack of critical thinking & reading skills, as well as the total ignorance of how to learn or do research in general is far more crippling in my experience.

    Even in college many of my fellow students didn't have the faintest idea of how to do a basic short research paper. I mean really short, like a 5 page paper were you were required to use 3-5 sources.

    I can remember one convict I attempted to assist in going legit after his prison time, being amazed at some of the very basic research techniques I went over with him.

    I felt they were a better approach to problem solving than the skillset he was used to relying on, I also remember he made a lot better student than many of my fellow college students.

    Reminded me of Devilkids and Shambletowners more than a little.

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