A story about the book industry I would actually like to read


I am sure in every industry it is the same: nobody likes to read what non-industry reporters have to say about what they do for a living. It is almost always painful. This seems to be a special problem for the book industry. By their nature, journalists are likely to want to think about how the printed word is doing, and by its nature, the book industry is likely to read articles about itself, and then write about them. There are about ten stories written about the book industry outside of the industry (and, let’s be honest, this is a problem inside the industry as well); my personal bugbears are ebooks and physical books are locked in a cage match TO THE DEATH, comics aren’t just for kids anymore! and several people who don’t agree told us different things about book pricing.

With this in mind, I respectfully and selfishly offer an article idea.

A trend I’ve been noticing in the past year is what seems to be an uptick in the number of established, profitable independent bookstores being sold by their owners, and especially a lot of articles where the owners talk about how they’ve loved the store dearly but it’s time to retire and think the store will need a new, energetic person to take it to the next level and contend with all the recent changes in the industry. Generally there are two mentions in the press: one when the owner announces their intent to sell, and one six months to a year later, when the sale is completed. The owner usually announces the sale with a high level of optimism and often has several qualified, interested candidates to choose from.

A high-profile example is last year’s sale of DC’s Politics and Prose. But if you read Shelf Awareness and PW Daily every day (and why wouldn’t you?), you know that they are pretty common. For example, in the past week, Mystery Lovers Bookshop (in business for 22 years) in PA announced its new ownership, and Roberta Rubin, owner of The Book Stall in Winnetka (this year’s PW Bookstore of the Year, celebrating their 30th anniversary) announced that she is starting to look for a new owner.

I like reading all these smaller individual stories. I think they’re cool. What I want is for someone to delve a little deeper into them. I want to know how and why this happens, and if it means anything. This isn’t the same story as why do people keep opening bookstores in these modern times, though that is also interesting. Both things are challenging, but opening a bookstore is not at all the same thing as buying one that already exists.

Here is a short list of things that these news items make me wonder:

  • How does one decide, after decades, to sell one’s bookstore?
  • And why? Is that decision caused by a single event that makes it all clear, or is it gradual?
  • What makes a person want to buy a bookstore? Why do so many people say they’ve always dreamed of owning a bookstore?
  • Is this person a customer? Is this person in the book industry? Who is this person? How old is this person? What does this person like to read?
  • How much do these people know about the book business?
  • How many people are interested in owning a bookstore until they learn about the book business?
  • How many people are even more interested once they know more about the book business?
  • What do these reactions tell us about the book industry? Can we learn something?
  • Is it easier to take over and make changes to an established store, or is it easier to start from scratch? Do the former owners and new owners agree about the answer to this?
  • What changes do the former owners imagine will be necessary? What changes do they think will be necessary but that they do not want to make themselves?
  • What changes do the new owners make?
  • How is owning a bookstore like the new owners thought it would be? How is it different?

I really believe there is something here! This is happening nationally, in urban, suburban, and rural areas, even though running bookstores in those three types of place are different undertakings. It’s happening at large stores and tiny ones; it’s happening at niche stores and general interest ones as well. After years of the beat of bookstore-closed-bookstore-closed-bookstore-closed pulsing through any article even tangentially related to books, this is an interesting counterpoint. Other bookstores closed. These did not. Why not? And what will happen to them now? This seems like a good moment in time to ask those questions, and could provide us with a good new way to think about bookstores and books and all that.

Okay, somebody go write this now. I think it would function best as a multi-part series. Make it so.