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When the Borders bookstore near my community had to liquidate all of its merchandise and close its doors back in July of last year, I felt like I was losing a long time friend. Hardly a week would go by that I didn’t take a break from work and go browse the store’s bookshelves or simply sit in its café. Borders was my Starbucks hangout.

But I have to admit in the last three years of our friendship, Borders did more for me than I did for it. Over the years I started purchasing more and more books from Amazon and less and less from Borders. By the time the iPad came out, I was pretty much done with buying paper books.

The Future Of Bookstores

I predict in the coming ten years, there will be a generation of young people who will never step foot in a bookstore, or in some areas of the country even a community library. Just as many of us over the age of 40 experienced the birth of digital photography, which has replaced film-based photography as we know it, we could be experiencing the death of brick-and-mortar bookstores, replaced by online bookstores and e-books.

Bookstore 8 copy

My office and garage contains several shelves of books that I have collected over the last 25 years. I’ve always loved the feel of holding and reading books, and referencing them anytime I wanted. While I wouldn’t call myself a book collector, I have been an avid reader of first novels, history and political books, and then lots of technical books related to photography and computer software. I have always seen that the purchase of books is an investment in lifelong learning and reading enjoyment. So I didn’t mind spending $40 or more per month for books and magazines at establishments like Borders, Tower Books, Barnes and Noble, and my favorite landmark Cody’s bookstore in Berkeley, California (which sadly also closed in 2008).

But then came along Amazon, which over the years has perfected the process for browsing and purchasing books online. Since it hasn’t set up hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores throughout the country, Amazon can afford to discount a majority of their books up to 30%, or even 40% for bestsellers.

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Amazon cheaper prices

When I walk into a Barnes and Noble bookstore (nearly 20 miles from I live), I may thoroughly enjoy the experience of browsing its shelves for all the newly published books and magazines, but I absolutely can’t avoid pulling out my iPhone and using Amazon’s mobile app to compare the price of books I’m interested in with the discounted prices that Amazon offers.

As much as I would like to purchase books from the Barnes and Noble bookstore because I don’t want to see it close like Borders, I always end up buying only a magazine or two there. I can’t justify paying $10-$15 more for a book that I can purchase on Amazon and receive at my front door in two days or less using the Amazon Prime service.

Not only does Amazon and other online sellers offer cheaper prices, they provide a customer experience that you can’t get in brick-and-mortar stores: namely, a much wider selection of books and real customer reviews of books and other merchandise.

Customer reviews

The Joy Of E-Books

For a few years, I bought nearly all of my paper books from Amazon, but ever since the Amazon Kindle e-reader for the iPhone and iPad came along, I have practically stopped purchasing paperback or hardback books.

I had always known since I first got my hands on the old Sony e-reader back in the late nineties that eventually e-books and e-reading devices would improve and begin to replace paper books. I didn’t know back then how it would be done, but now today e-reading devices like the Kindle and the Nook, and e-reader apps like the Kindle and iBooks Reading Ebooks on the iPad With iBooks & Amazon Kindle [Mac] Reading Ebooks on the iPad With iBooks & Amazon Kindle [Mac] Read More are nearly matching the quality and experience of paper books.

Kindle

Yes, paper books are a joy to hold and read, but the problem is that they begin to take up lots of space, and are sometimes cumbersome to carry around or relocate when moving to a new home or apartment.

After considerably downsizing my paper book library last summer, I don’t want to add new books to my shelves. And I imagine millions of books, and certainly lots more magazines, go unsold every year or languish on bookshelves.

Kindle software 2

Downloading books and magazines on the iPad is not only more affordable and better for the environment, it means also that I don’t purchase books until I’m ready to read them. Amazon, Apple, and Barnes and Noble provide sample downloads Preview Free Sample Book Chapters From Amazon & iBooks Preview Free Sample Book Chapters From Amazon & iBooks Read More of the first few chapters of the e-books they sell. This is a great way to preview the contents of some books, for many times I’ve made my buying decisions based on reading the first few chapters of an e-book.

Though unfortunately some e-books are becoming as expensive as paperback editions, most are being sold for under $15, which fits my book buying budget these days.

Kindleprice

Goodbye To Book Stores?

Though Barnes and Noble is the last major national bookstore chain remaining in the U.S., alongside only a few thousand small independent bookstores throughout the country, I often wonder will they be around 10 or 20 years from now? It does not seem likely. With the ever increasing sale of Kindles and other e-reading devices, most consumers will find it very difficult to justify purchasing higher priced paper books. E-books are more affordable, and e-readers are more portable, pretty easy to use, and getting better year by year.

The challenge however is that many types of books, e.g. coffee table size books, some technical manuals and textbooks, don’t easily fit the e-reader format. The formatting of e-books and e-reader apps like the Kindle and iBooks could still use significant improvements in terms of pagination, the browsing and navigation of digital pages, and even better annotation tools. In fact, e-books and e-readers need to greatly exceed the experience of reading paper books in order for many readers to stop fully purchasing traditional books.

While I don’t look forward to the closing of brick-and-mortar bookstores, it almost seems inevitable. But what do you think? Can traditional bookstores find a way to survive? What can Amazon, Nook, and Apple do to improve their e-reading devices even more? Let us know in the comments below.

Image Credit: Borders bookstore via Shutterstock

  1. Ellen Odza
    July 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    I'm very torn - I love my Nook but have thousands of physical books and have not stopped purchasing them. I think it is a shame that we are losing so many bookstores - I truly hope that they do not all disappear. I was in England recently and found that Charing Cross Road, once a mecca for bookstore lovers, now has very few bookshops left. I still personally prefer browsing in a brick-and-mortar store - you never know when an intriguing title or book jacket will jump out at you and introduce you to your next favorite book!

    • Bakari Chavanu
      July 23, 2012 at 7:10 pm

      Ellen, I agree. Though I try not to buy paper books much anymore, I still like browsing a bookstore. Unfortunately, I just can't see bookstores being able to compete with the online prices. Thanks for your feedback.

  2. Bakari Chavanu
    February 17, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Joseslepain, thanks for your ideas about B&N. Definitely worth considering. And like you, I also donating a lot books to the library, and ending selling many to a used bookstore. And as much as I love my paper library, I'm no longer interested in adding more paper books to my shelves. I like the ability to just access books on my iPad anywhere I go. I now only wish the Kindle and iBook software were better for non-fiction and annotation. 

  3. Daniel
    February 15, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    Random: That looks like the Borders that was in Simi Valley, CA

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm

      It was very sad to see Borders closing in many communities, where unfortunately there are probably no bookstores now available.

  4. M.S. Smith
    February 15, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Book stores are going to have a hard time. I think we'll see a lot of them reduced to specialty shops, selling only books that people might not want to buy online or in digital format.

    It's a shame. I don't like e-readers. If I spend money on a book I want to own it. I also like to browse the local book store from time to time. But it's hard to see how they will survive.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 17, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      I agree, publishers need to find a way for consumers to purchase, own, and even share the e-books. There are still too many restrictions on using e-books. 

  5. Kevin Klingmeyer
    February 15, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    I don't have an e-reader yet (yet I have a bunch of ebooks), but most of my music is on iTunes (being a Mac-user, it's just easier that way—I'm lazy like that). I have all my books organized how I want them on a bookshelf (I think it's about 150 books on that shelf). I know what books I have easily, but I still find music that I forgot I had on iTunes.

    For me, it's an organizational display thing. You can scroll through an e-reader or tablet, but it's very different looking at a wall of books that you can recognize. Since I'm a research type grad student. My bookshelf has 8 partitions, and I make use of them by arranging the books in various ways. When I want them by subject, or area of authorship, or foundational methodology, I rearrange the books. No online cataloguer (without using tons of tags), tablet, or ereader that I have found can do it that well.I find similar trends when it comes to websites versus bookstores. I ordered my wife a bunch of romance movies from amazon a few ago. On my recommended for you page on Amazon (despite tons of other purchases), Colin Firth movies come up before any books on Philippine ethnography (something I would look for). That's an online-only issue. —That, and without physical stores it would be more difficult to have an author come to your town and sign books. I'm not into that sort of thing, but many people probably are.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      God points, Kevin. How do we keep alive many of the traditions that came out of the paper book culture?

  6. Alpha49er
    February 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Well, there is also the view of sustainability. While it's true that technology is crowding out books eventually that technology is going to be very pricey. Oil will eventually become so scarce that plastics might become a rich mans commodity along with paper. Books will never go away simply because there will always be somebody that collects them and preserves them. Printing might need to go back a few centuries because someone will always be willing to do it. Our biggest challenge will be resources and resource allocation. Our planet has a finite amount of them and we haven't been good stewards. We should be using hemp instead of paper as it holds ink better and lasts longer without yellowing. In fact we should be taking advantage of all hemp could do for the world as a renewable, sustainable, resource. I, for one, love my books and just can't get comfortable with an e-reader. I've tried the Kindle app on my Droid X and didn't care for it. I haven't tried any of the larger ones yet but probably will eventually. Like most commenting here, I love the feeling of the bookstore but my budget prefers Amazon Prime.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 15, 2012 at 7:41 pm

      Yes I agree, sustainability is definitely an issue when it comes to paper books. It seems to me that e-books have less of a footprint than barges of cut down trees.

  7. Carl
    February 15, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    A couple of questions that I haven't seen answered anywhere.
    1. How do you re-sell an ebook?
    2. How do you pass a beloved book in ebook form on to someone?

    I've had several ereaders, thus read many ebooks, and I almost always end up wanting the pbook form a book I particularly like. Now I have to buy it again!

    Or if I switch from an old ereader to a new one (I.E. old Sony to a Kindle), do I have to buy the books I like again?

    Possessing a pbook to me is much more fulfilling. But I'm a gadget junkie, so I gotta have my ereader! Dilemma.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 15, 2012 at 7:37 pm

      Well, Amazon has started a book lending program, and in the foreseeable future I don't see why it would be difficult to start resale e-books program. However, I agree that under the current publishing model, it is very difficult to pass down e-books. Publishers feel as though they will loose profit if people could simply pass alone digital books in the same way they pass along free PDFs over the internet.

  8. Dave Baker
    February 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    I read a lot of books on my iPad, but still buy paper books. If I am on vacation I will take a cheap paperback down to the pool and worry about it getting stolen when I get in the water or accidentally splashed. I won't take that same chance with the iPad.

    Books will become further and further a niche item, but I doubt they will ever disappear.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 15, 2012 at 7:32 pm

      I agree, paper books will never disappear, but we may not be able to purchase them at a local brick-and-mortar establishment.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 15, 2012 at 7:43 pm

      I think I only purchased maybe five or six paper books last year, and all of them were tech related. The rest were ebooks.

  9. Sjorcha Daynes-Todman
    February 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    I love the idea that the font can be manipulated to suit comfort. 85 year old neighbour loves her Kindle!
    Books on the shelf are 'front of mind' scenario, great for kids to encourage them to read. I still see book clubs being popular; whilst books at garage sales are always a hoot to rumage through.
    Though I dread the thought of loosing Book Stores entirely, for them to survive they will need to adapt, the clever ones will

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 15, 2012 at 7:31 pm

      Exactly. Bookstores will have to change their model. And yes I also agree about the font size changes you can make in e-readers. Huge plus. Now if bookstores could only come up with similar features, they may have a chance of surviving. 

  10. Linda (mauilibrarian2)
    February 15, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    It comes down to PRICE, which forces us to settle, and CONVENIENCE in this age of comfort, doesn't it? I like Joel's comment about independent booksellers. I hope he's right. My hope is that paper books will always be available to those of us who cherish the visceral, cultural experience that a flat screen just cannot provide.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 15, 2012 at 7:28 pm

      Paper books will still be around for while, mainly because readers can't at this point format some books in the traditional ways paper books are formatted. However, book stores will have to rethink how they sell books. Maybe small bookstores can become like mini cultural centers and coffee shops where people come to not just purchase books but for networking, light entertainment, and such. 

    • Linda (mauilibrarian2)
      February 16, 2012 at 2:14 am

      Yes, having mini cultural centers is a fantastic model, Bakari.

  11. Karicowan49
    February 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    I miss Borders too and Barnes and Noble makes it easier as it never has a book I am looking for and would have to order it so cheaper to look elsewhere.  I gave up on Books a Million a long time ago due to the same problem and poor service with both.  I am a huge paper lover and cherish my huge collection taking up half my garage since I downsized and no longer have a "library" space. It never fails though that when we need a book on virtually any topic I can find it in my collection. 
    So even though frustrating I will continue to search for my beloved paper, hard covers and precious first editions. 

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 15, 2012 at 5:34 pm

      It sounds like we both share libraries in our home. I now though find my collection bittersweet because I've read so much over the years, and have books I purchased a long time ago but never got around to reading—that now I don't cherish my paper library as much as I used to. The majority of my books sit on shelves year after year, uniquely designed but with nothing to say because I no longer open most of them. Some days I want to downsize my collection just a few bookcases. Surprisingly, I found that it's difficult to get rid of books these days, especially ones that are somewhat outdated. 

  12. Joel Lee
    February 15, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Bookstores will never truly disappear. All that will happen is that the big chains will die off and be replaced by local independents. Which is to say that physical books will never go away, but they will become a niche market.

    The newer generations will grow up with the new technology, but there will always be people who prefer the feeling of paper between their fingers.

    TL;DR: Big chain bookstores will vanish. Say hello to local niche shops.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      February 15, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      But it seems like independent bookstores in my area struggle to get business. I often wonder how they have stay open so long. I have spent a lot of money at independent bookstores in the past, but now with stores like Amazon and much cheaper e-books, is difficult to justify spending 30 to 40% more for a book that I will read once and put back on the shelf. I really love visiting bookstores, but I just wish somehow they could compete better with online sellers.

    • Anonymous
      February 15, 2012 at 5:51 pm

      Kinda like there will always be people who prefer 8-track tapes? I disagree. Some day, possibly in our lifetimes, there will be very few, if any, book stores left. I think that magazines and newspapers are next...

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