A bookshop recently announced it will be closing its location in an English shopping mall after almost 40 years at the same place. It plans to continue, but most likely only online and through the mail. It is a story that not long ago would have led to weeping and gnashing of teeth within the trade. Now, the story is old hat. There is no longer a need for wailing. The book trade is not dying. It is simply evolving.
The bookstore that will be closing by the end of the year is Exeter Books, of Exeter, UK. They have been located at the Guildhall Shopping Centre since 1976. Owner Roy Parry, now 90 years old, runs the place with his son, also Roy. However, this is not a retirement move. Roy, Sr., plans to continue in the business, even if they no longer have a storefront. He told a local newspaper that no one has told him to retire, so he plans to carry on. Why shouldn't he?
The Guildhall Shopping Centre is in the midst of a major renovation, at a cost of over $10 million. It is located in a busy area of town, with lots of businesses and good neighbors. Rents are going up. The area of the mall containing the bookshop is to be converted into something of a food court. The twelve shops will be converted to 13 cafes and restaurants. Books may not be quite as easy to sell as they once were, but food consumption does not appear to be waning. There are already numerous restaurants in the area, from upscale to fast food. Nonetheless, there must be a need for 13 more. Perhaps no one in Exeter eats at home.
Many bookshops have closed over the past few years. Then again, others have opened as well. Certainly, there are no longer as many open storefronts. Bookshops in malls, even those selling new books, have largely faded away. Others in prime locations have succumbed to rising rents. Many dealers who once had open shops now confine themselves to selling on the internet or via direct mail. The listing sites may be their primary venue. Others make greater use of auctions, be it traditional, online, running their own auctions, or eBay. Prices may not be as high, but sales are quick. Time is money.
There are two primary ways dealers have reacted to changing times, even if they didn't fully realize what was happening or how they were responding. One has been to seek new ways of selling. Naturally, the internet has been a major new source of sales. Others have devised new ways to reach their community. A Massachusetts dealer is well-known in his area for giving seminars at local libraries and similar places where he discusses old books and invites people to bring theirs along for an evaluation. A Texas bookseller recently announced she was setting up a bookmobile to be used as a temporary location at various spots, almost like an outdoor food vendor.
Other dealers have responded to fewer book sales by expanding their sales to logically related material, such as maps, prints, ephemera, and various other works on paper. Fewer people these days are pure book collectors, but many collect books as one item that pertains to their field of collecting – perhaps science, a famous person, or a particular place. Some dealers focus very deeply on a particular field, similar to what many Main Street shops did years ago when they realized they could no longer compete against discount chains and supermarkets. They became specialists. People still crave expert advice, even if they do seem reluctant to pay for it.
The other way of dealing with changing times is cost control. When a bookseller closes a shop, they may not be thinking of it that way. It may seem like an act of desperation, an end to life as they know it. What it really is is a business decision, a logical reaction to a market that focuses more on price and stay-at-home convenience than to the camaraderie so important to an earlier generation of collectors. That's okay. It's the collector's prerogative. Booksellers then adjust their service and cost structure to be an accord with the new collector's willingness to pay. Not all are able to change their ways quickly enough, but they will be replaced by sellers who better understand the times. The market evolves to meet what today's collectors want. Booksellers adapt. After all, the customer is always right.