Given what’s been going on for the last year one’s reaction to a recent story from Publishers Weekly headlined Bookstore Sales Fell 28.3% in 2020 might be “Just 28.3%?”.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. As the report Covid-19 and Book Publishing puts it “Book retail is really a set of businesses. First, it’s both physical and digital. More than half of book retail takes place online (with Amazon accounting for at least half of those sales). Physical retail, on its own, has several components, broadly speaking: chain bookstores, independent bookstores, big box retailers like Costco, and “newsstands” at drug and grocery stores, airport stores, etc.” It goes without saying that different bits of this business have been differently affected. Online’s going gangbusters, while, say, if nobody’s taking flights, business at airport stores isn’t going to be booming. There have been closures of bookstores (and openings too). Many a local independent bookstore was already walking a knife-edge before we got into shutdowns. It remains a disgrace that the landlord remains the only player in the retail system who seems always to be kept whole. Now that our government is no longer headed by a failed real estate tycoon, maybe we can get some sort of reform going. Sarah McNally’s suggestion of rents tied to sales would help to share the risk.

There’s no doubt that we’ve seen twin market changes during the crisis — towards online buying, and towards ebooks. I suspect the e-to-print ratio will eventually return to preexisting norms (not that that really matters to publishers), but online purchasing — of all sorts of product — seems likely to survive. Maybe bricks-and-mortar retail will end up as more of a show-rooming situation: try on that jacket and then have it shipped to your home after the sleeves have been taken up ½”. Bookshop.org has made a good start on integrating independent bookstores into the digital marketplace, but individual stores need to be proactive in widening their methods of getting books to buyers. Many have already. They need to keep the innovations they’ve made and think of others. We’ve not lived for a long time in a world where the only way you could get a book was to go on down to your local bookstore and buy it.

Despite all the trouble small businesses face, it may turn out to be local bookstores who ultimately manage to make it through. As the report says “many consumers view small, independent stores in their neighborhood as much-loved places to shop”. Barnes and Noble, undergoing reorg before Covid, must be especially challenged. They started out with an idea of how to “reinvent themselves”, but immediately had to put on the brakes because of coronavirus lockdowns. Now they are moving forward again. They are faced with the same sort of challenges that all big retailers are, particularly as so many malls, where lots of their stores are located, appear to be in the process of collapse. It is noticeable that big retailers who have prospered over the past year have been the ones who were able quickly to beef up their online business. Is B&N going to be able to match that?

In the end, whether customers’ love of their local store will be enough to ensure survival will have to be seen. My observation of past crises is that collapse tends to happen after the crisis is over, when we have all heaved that sigh of relief and turned our faces towards better times. Then, bang, bang; here come the bankruptcies: finding money for re-expansion seems to be the problem. Maybe all the government support we’ve seen will make things different this time.