Why Bookstores?

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  November 23, 2010

'Canary in the coal mine'
The Brookline Booksmith got on its game with plastic squirting goldfish. They were lumped on top of one another in a tub under the front counter, eye-level with the stroller set. In the two years I worked there, I sold dozens to kiddos reluctant to part with them even for the brief moment in which I rung them up.

The goldfish came to the Booksmith at a time of great uncertainty. Eight big stores inhabited a two-mile radius. Barnes and Noble opened a store in Coolidge Corner just a block away. "We were looking for ways to open another revenue stream," manager Dana Brigham tells me.

At first, the store tried to sell mostly book-related sidelines, Brigham says, so the goldfish sat with only a few other tchotchkes. Sales soon cured the Booksmith of that piety. At that time, the store's decision to carry unrepentant gift items alongside serious literary fare items placed the Booksmith at the vanguard of independent bookstore innovation. Now, "stores that have adopted [that approach] have tended to be the survivors," says Brigham. Not only did the Booksmith survive, Brigham maintains that it leads the nation's retailers in plastic goldfish sales.

Brigham became the poster child for indie triumphalism last year when the Booksmith put the neighboring Barnes and Noble out of business. "Unchained Success: Independent bookstores holding up vs. chain rivals," crowed the cover of the Globe. In that story, publishing-industry newsletter Shelf Awareness editor John Mutter called the idea that independent bookstores are disappearing "dated." He noted that hundreds of new bookstores have opened and thrived in the past few years, and the stores that endured the chains and the Internet are stronger than ever.

Stronger, but certainly not the same. Plastic fish — and other gift items, and used books, and discount books — fill a space once occupied by certain kinds of books. Auto repair manuals, road maps (though not atlases), consumer guides, dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, computer books, travel guidebooks, Cliff's Notes, and sex guides are all on the decline.

"Reference books have been dead for a long time, nearly a decade," says Wendy Strothman, who helms a Boston literary agency. Strothman sees literary agents as a bellwether for the publishing industry at large. "We're the canary in the coal mine," she says. When books got digitized, she says, hefty reference volumes are the first to go. Why lug around a travel guide or a dictionary when you can get an app for that?

Along with reference works, Boston-based agent Esmond Harmsworth anticipates the death of ink-and-paper genre fiction. While embarrassed romance readers have turned to e-books to shield themselves from judgment on the bus, mystery readers are simply dying out, he says. "They would buy three to five mass market paperbacks every week," says Harmsworth. "There are just fewer of those people and they're not being replaced by younger people."

However, the same younger people who aren't reading mysteries continue to patronize bookstores. The Booksmith expanded its young adult section last year. This tech-savvy age group, Harmsworth notes, "have fewer e-book readers because of the expense, but they've been buying lots and lots of books."

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