Signs of a rebound in independent bookstores, but not in the statistics

Lately, there’ve been a spate of stories pointing to a minor renaissance of the independent American bookstore. After decades of glum news and closings, there are more and more instances of independent bookstores opening or expanding. The American Bookseller’s Association points with pride to a seven-year string of increases in its dues paying members. Articles in the New York Times “Indie Bookstores are back with a passion,” and US News “Indie Bookstores remain on a roll,” recount first hand accounts of successful firms.

The independent bookstore is an American icon. It’s hard to picture a city–the classic Main Street–without a local bookstore. Bookstores are one of the categories of customer-facing retail and service businesses we’ve used at City Observatory to create our “storefront index” which measures urban walkability. Founding father Ben Franklin was famously a self-taught intellectual who ran a book shop in Philadelphia. The indie bookseller figures prominently in pop culture, from Meg Ryan’s Shop Around the Corner bookstore owner in You’ve Got Mail, to a host of other films and television. In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe takes refuge in Dorothy Malone’s Acme Bookshop while staking out a suspect.

More recently, Portlandia has featured ardently feminist booksellers Candace and Toni, the proprietors of Women and Women First Bookstore.


For a long time, what with the growth of on-line retailer Amazon (which built its business model selling books at a discount) and with the advent of big-box retailing, it seemed like the small independent bookseller was a doomed anachronism. But in the past few years, there’s been a surprising rebound in local bookselling. It turns out that many readers still prefer the printed page, and gladly patronize a knowledgable and attentive local business. And the surviving and thriving local booksellers have changed their business models to emphasize personal service, community, and on-site experiences that larger and virtual competitors have a hard time matching. But while some stores are flourishing, others are floundering: in Memphis, the Booksellers at Laurelwood, one of three remaining city bookstores is closing this month. In Detroit, the city’s oldest–Big Bookstore in Midtown–is closing after eight decades. In St. Louis, it’s the half century old Webster Groves bookshop that’s closing.

One final sign that a shift back to bricks and mortar bookselling is in the cards: even Amazon is opening its own physical stores.

Government data tell a different story

With such upbeat stories in the popular press, we decided to take a quick look at Census data on the number and geography of bookstores, to see if we could corroborate and quantify these trends. We looked to two key data series, the annual County Business Patterns series, tabulated by the Census Bureau using payroll tax records, and the once-every-five years Economic Census, which survey’s the nation’s businesses about sales, wages, and business operations. We focus on the government definition of bookstores, NAICS 451211.  This statistical category includes all kinds of bookstores, from the large national chains to small, independent businesses, as well as college bookstores, and those that are adjuncts to museums.

According to the Economic Census, the number of bookstores in the US has fallen from 12,363 in 1997 to 7,176 in 2012–a loss of more than 5,000 establishments.  That pattern is also reflected more recently in the data reported as part of the County Business Patterns series. These data show the number of bookstores declining by about 30 percent since 2008, from 9,700 to about 6,900.


So here’s our mystery: While there’s been a visible resurgence in bookstores in some locations, the bigger pattern of change remains downward.

We’re not sure what the answer is to this mystery.  There are some of the usual suspects to consider.  First, its likely that many of the bookstores that are closing are the big national chains, like Borders, Barnes and Noble and Waldenbooks.  In market’s where these larger national stores are closing, it may be creating more market space for independent operators to thrive and even occasionally expand. A second factor is that much of the decline in the number of establishments may be among very small bookstores in small towns and rural areas. These are the kinds of places where the threat from Amazon (lower prices, wider selection and convenience) would be a threat.