New York Times Features Dialogue on Bookstores in the Digital Era

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Last weekend, the Opinion Pages of the New York Times’ Sunday Review featured “Tumult in the Book World,” a dialogue in letters, including one from ABA President Steve Bercu, that were solicited by the paper to answer the question “Can traditional bookstores survive the digital marketplace?”

That question was raised by literary agent and former bookseller Stuart Bernstein, whose letter to the editor on August 12, noted that “e-books and Amazon have upended longstanding business models and put new emphasis on price” and that has led to an increasing number of customers who use bricks-and-mortar bookstores as showrooms, where they browse and then order online from Amazon.

“Your local bookstore can’t survive as a showroom,” said Bernstein. “The Justice Department apparently wants you to have cheap book prices above all else. But isn’t there a bigger picture?

“We vote at the polls, but also with our wallets. What is the value of the best book you’ve ever read? Can you even put a price on it?”

In a letter to the Times on August 14,  Bercu, the co-owner of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, agreed with Bernstein that a digital transformation is underway, but he wrote:

 What shouldn’t be overlooked is that it’s also witnessing a vibrant renaissance in indie bookselling. Nationwide, sales in independent bookstores are up over the past two years, new stores are opening nationwide and a whole new generation of booksellers is coming to the fore.

While indie booksellers, too, were stunned by the Justice Department’s assault on a legal pricing model for e-books that was resulting in greater consumer choice and lower prices, our focus will be to continue providing readers and book buyers an unparalleled experience for browsing and discovering their next great read. Research bears out that the percentage of those who discover new titles in a physical bookstore far outstrips that of those who learned about a new book online. Algorithms are still a pale substitute for a bookseller’s insight, knowledge and passion.

Our neighborhood bookstores are where customers come to experience firsthand a deeper connection with authors, great writing and their own community.

David English of Toronto, who said that his bookstore closed in 2000 due to the effects of big box stores and Amazon, wrote, “Amazon is anticompetitive and now has near monopoly status. How can the Justice Department believe that it is protecting book buyers when publishers live or die based on Amazon’s purchasing decisions?”

And Seattle’s Cherese Campo, a self-described voracious reader, said: “I would consider it a tragedy if the unique pleasure of buying books were reduced to downloading digital e-books or buying cheaply from superstores or warehouses.

“In support of readers everywhere, I deliberately flip the ‘showrooming’ phenomenon on its head: I troll around the Web and then I purchase the book at my local bookstore. If it isn’t in stock, the shop will order it for me.

“Yes, it costs a bit more for each book, but the vast pleasures and satisfaction of having a fantastic local bookstore in my town is well worth the extra cost.”

However, Barry Brisco observed that he was able to download Journey to the Center of the Earth in seconds while visiting Snaefellsnes National Park in Iceland, where Jules Verne was inspired to write his classic story. “The end of the traditional bookstore and print books is cause for woe only among those of a certain age,” Brisco said. “Younger generations will miss them no more than they miss celluloid film stock and vinyl records. Yet video and music are alive and well, and more people than ever are producing artistic and creative content because the barrier to entry is lower than in the past and the means of distributing the content is vastly more efficient.”

And Len Sherman, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, called the plight of independent booksellers “yet another example of Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of ‘creative destruction,’ which describes situations in which technological innovation expands the range and affordability of products available to consumers at the expense of traditional suppliers.”

However, Sherman concluded, “There is a role for traditional practitioners, provided that they restructure to the realities of a smaller base of loyal customers willing to pay higher prices for valued attributes. For example, community-supported agriculture cooperatives and farmers markets serve consumers seeking fresh produce from local farms. And Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, has maintained an evangelistic core of customers enamored of the ambience and expertise of their local bookseller, despite higher prices.”

Acknowledging the replies to his original letter, Berstein wrote, “I won’t argue with Mr. Sherman’s take on creative destruction, but the concept, with its origin in the writings of Karl Marx, does not portend a triumphant finale for capitalism.”

And, he said, “If there are bright spots for independent bookstores, as Mr. Bercu, who co-owns one of the great ones, points out, it is very good news, because publishing, like the ecosystem, requires diversity to flourish.”

Finally, while applauding the “technology that allows Mr. Brisco to instantly download a Jules Verne classic in his native language while visiting a foreign country,” Bernstein wrote: “It’s amazing, but I hope he ends up talking to his travel companions about what he’s reading rather than how cheap and easy it was to obtain, which seems to be the conversation right now.

“Because the process and the people that have, over the years, reliably brought to our attention an astounding number of important works of literature, scholarship, information and amusement — in book form — are priceless.”