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.
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.
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.
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 are nearly matching the quality and experience of paper books.
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.
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 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.
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