In decades past, bookstores occupied a cornerstone of a town or community. People of all ages would find themselves browsing various titles while bumping into an old acquaintance. But that began to change a bit in the 1990s as bog-box retail bookstores slowly emerged and drove many smaller independent bookstores out of business. This was even depicted in the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail,” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. But then Amazon happened, and the big bookstore retailers in the physical space found themselves in a similar situation. It wasn’t long before they too had to start cutting back and closing stores. Given this, it seemed like the physical bookstore was slowly moving toward extinction. But based on current trends, it would be foolish to count them out.
Over the last two years, bookstores’ comeback as physical storefronts have been incredibly impressive. This not only pertains to big bookstore retailers but also the return of the independent bookstore. Though the pandemic indeed had some negative impacts early on all businesses, it has actually served as a stimulus for bookstores’ comeback. In fact, many new stores have opened during this time and have been thriving. The return of the independent bookstore and growth of larger chains is real, and there appears no end in sight. As these stores increasingly appeal to a diverse population, it looks as if the return of the bookstore is on solid footing.
“The pandemic allowed me to open a physical location, because rent prices dropped on retail spaces due to store closings…I think people are enthralled with the novelty of a business opening rather than shutting down during Covid.” – Kari Ferguson, Owner of “Oh Hello Again” Bookstore in Seattle
The Return of the Independent Bookstore
One of the most intriguing developments as of late has been the increase in indie book sellers. Hundreds of new independent bookstores have opened since 2020, and most attribute their success to the pandemic itself. At first, this might seem counterintuitive, given all the COVID restrictions and lockdowns. But in fact, these were precisely the things that persuaded people to spend more time reading. Most bookstore owners today suggest that it is this resurgence of readers that has supported bookstores’ comeback. Certainly, people could order a book online. But as COVID restrictions relaxed, most wanted to return to some type of social environment in a post-pandemic world. Bookstores provided the perfect solution for many in this regard while also allowing them to peruse new books.
Independent bookstores’ comeback is well supported by national figures as well. According to the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for indie bookstores, membership has blossomed. In the last year alone, membership has grown by 300 with 100 of these representing new stores. In total, the association now has over 2,000 members in more than 2,500 locations. While some small bookstores did close during the pandemic, the subsequent return of the independent bookstore well surpassed the initial losses. And based on growth trends this past year, 2023 is expected to be another banner year for the independent bookseller.
“The real energy within the stores at the moment is with what we call young adults, so teens and people in their early 20s. That’s where there’s been a real boom.” – James Daunt, CEO of Barnes and Noble
A Shift From the e-Commerce Store to the Physical One
While the return of the independent bookstore is noteworthy, major bookstore chains are also making gains. Barnes and Noble, the largest bookstore chain with a physical presence, is expanding for the first time in years. The big-box retailer peaked in 2008 with 726 stores, but it since has shrunk to about 600. But this is changing as the company plans to open 30 new stores this next year based on increased sales. They too attribute the bookstores’ comeback to the pandemic and a rediscovered passion for books among the public. Plus, these larger stores offer a wider range of experiences when compared to online or smaller bookstores.
Interestingly, Barnes and Noble specifically has opened new locations in sites where Amazon bookstores previously existed. Amazon appears to be cutting back and moving out of the brick-and-mortar space. This not only involves its physical bookstores but its other retail locations including Amazon Fresh. Bookstores’ comeback is aided by these events, but they’re not the only factors involved. Social media sites like BookTok have stimulated a return of many teens and young adults to physical bookstores. It would thus seem that consumers want a more blended experience between the virtual and the physical. And companies like Barnes and Noble are well poised to meet this need.
“What stands out to me is the desire [of indie booksellers] to make books available to their neighborhoods, speak to underserved populations, or even provide needed services within their communities.” – Ann Seaton, Co-executive Director, California Independent Booksellers Association
Room For Everyone
In the midst of this return of the independent bookstore and big-box retailers, some additional trends can be appreciated. The most notable one is that many new bookstores are targeting niche clientele through diversity and inclusion efforts. Specifically, many booksellers are trying to appeal to underserved populations and minority customers. For example, the number of African American bookstores has more than doubled in the last decade. Others offer books for those of various sexual orientations, gender perspectives, and racial minorities. The common thread among these trends is the desire to share books with the entire community. This is also playing a notable role bookstores’ comeback in recent years.
Based on the growth of all bookstore types, it is evident that there is enough consumer demand to go around. Customers’ preferences currently demonstrate the desire to have a physical experience while sampling books, socializing, and having a coffee. While online book sales will continue, a rebalancing is currently taking place resulting in physical bookstores’ comeback. This is great news for indie booksellers and larger chains as they introduce new generations to the bookstore experience. And with expanding selections to meet diverse communities, the potential for future growth looks quite good.