Mike Shatzkin wants us to remember that the growth in the number of independent bookstores which we see today is in fact stage two of a longer process. His piece at The Shazkin Files tells us of Ingram’s involvement in the 60s and 70s in creating an efficient, numbers-driven book market, which enabled bookstores to get stock a bit more smoothly. Would this have been enough to cause a renaissance? I wasn’t there, so I just leave that as a question.

All this comparative stuff seems a little pointless without recourse to numbers, and numbers are hard to come by. Open Education Database was telling us in 2011 that there were then more bookstores in America than in 1931, when there were apparently about 4,000. But what constitutes a bookshop rather than a place selling books is rarely defined. Department stores used to sell lots of books. Macy’s opened their first book department 1902. The final one shut down in 1994. Would they be included in the 4,000? Membership of the American Booksellers Association might give some comparative guidance but the earliest year for which Wikipedia tells us their membership numbers is 1991 when there were 5,200 members. Publishers Weekly told us in 2016 that there were then “1,775 ABA members with 2,311 outlets”. In any case membership numbers for the ABA include only stores that have decided to pay membership dues: we constantly run up against the same problem with publishers and the Association of American Publishers. Heck, it’s almost impossible to discover how many bookshops there are in New York City. I wonder if that man who’s just made a film about walking every block in the city could tell?  (There’s a trailer at that Gothamist link.) The answer’s almost certainly, No, even if he had walked with this burning question in the front of his mind. After all is a drugstore selling a few puzzle books a bookstore?

Selling books to people who want to read them is really what we all want. Once upon a time you had to harness up the horse and go into town. Cars brought about malls. Now we have other options. While we all value bookshops as a browsing spot and serendipity stimulant, we can’t really claim that they are, as they used to be, the only way to obtain reading material. Counting bookstores now seems like a pretty pointless exercise when almost half of all printed books are sold by Amazon, and around 80% of ebooks. The Shatzkin Files provide some recent numbers.* With a dominant competitor taking up all the sunlight, obviously independent bookstores have to flourish on specialization, local loyalty, personal connection, knowledgeable selection. All the indications thus far are that this is a gratifyingly viable strategy.

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* As so often the tone of the discussion is armageddon-flavored. For example “Legacy publishing below the Big Five is suffering more, seeing their market share increase at Amazon even faster than the major houses are.” How is it such a bad thing that Amazon is selling a higher proportion of the books published by these houses? They are selling them, aren’t they? A sale is a good thing. Bad would be a situation where Amazon wasn’t willing to sell books from smaller publishers and as a result the books didn’t get sold at all. Sure there’s a discount issue, but while publishers can bitch about that we can of course manage it. Somehow Amazon represents such a fundamental change to some people that they cannot resist the Pavlovian response which makes them witter on about the end of the world as they know (and love) it. Relax: it’s just another way to sell books. Ever bought music, shoes, jeans, electric lights, even a television, a car! on-line?