Bookstores are a go-to for the gift-getter, a one-stop shop that has a little something for everyone.
But there’s a new kid on the block this season as online giant Amazon creeps into the physical realm, with 13 brick-and-mortar stores across the United States and counting.
In the Washington suburb of Bethesda, the sector’s transformation is playing out in full view: traditional bookstore Barnes & Noble is closing shop and Amazon is coming to town.
“I think the elephant in the room is Amazon,” said Donna Paz Kaufman, a Florida-based industry consultant.
Since it began soaring to e-commerce domination in 1995, Amazon has been a thorn in the side of independent bookstores and big-box chains alike, with Borders shuttered in 2011.
Barnes & Noble’s numbers, meanwhile, are dwindling.
Though itself a big-box store that at its zenith menaced independent sellers, long-time customer Liz Cummings said Barnes & Noble “became a part of the community”.
Although she is dismayed by its loss, Cummings is welcoming Amazon’s neighbourhood debut.
“There’s no concern as far as I can tell, because people want to be able to browse for books,” said Cummings. Amazon said it will stock only bestselling or highly rated titles and feature local authors in the store.
For the industry, which includes an increasing number of independents according to the American Booksellers Association, welcoming Amazon is more of a challenge — but not something to pout over.
“Our culture is at risk if there isn’t diversity in the number of outlets selling books,” said analyst Kaufman.
She believes Amazon’s move into the brick-and-mortar market is about accessing a certain type of customer.
“We know that their interest in the bookstore world is really a portal,” she said.
“They started with books because they wanted the profile of those customers that would then buy a lot of other things.”
While ex-Washington Post journalist Bradley Graham admits Amazon’s “convenience and cost” is hard to beat, he believes there is “room in the market for them as well as us”.
He likens local bookshops to community centres. He’s not convinced the cyberspace behemoth can replicate that crucial human touch.
Graham said bookselling remains a game of narrow margins, with non-book offerings and behind-the-scenes technology crucial to boosting revenue and shaving administrative costs. — AFP