Bookstores may have to turn page
Cindy Russell sells books, so it follows that she likes metaphors. "We're buggy whips in an automobile world," she says.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Cindy Russell sells books, so it follows that she likes metaphors.
"We're buggy whips in an automobile world," she says.
Russell runs City Books, a 20-year-old store on First Hill she's owned for the past 12. She sells books to Pill Hill hospital workers, patients looking to pass the time and folks who live in senior care nearby. It's been a rich book-buying neighborhood, she says.
But with the invention of Amazon, then digital books and now the recession, sales have been flat or trending down for years.
This month, though, they fell off a cliff. Down an astonishing 60 percent compared with last January. Which was no flush month itself.
"I'm in dire straits," Russell said, cradling her last copy of J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" that a caller wanted put on hold. "It's not that people aren't reading — they are. But there are obviously forces out there bigger than I am."
Those forces are pummeling Seattle's famed bookstore industry, where there are more bookstores per capita than any place in America — more than 150 at last count.
The end of the bookstore has been predicted for some time. But it's only been hypothetical. A theory bandied about as testimonial to the disruptive power of the Internet.
Now, it may be starting to happen.
Recently departed include Bailey/Coy Books and Horizon Books, both on Capitol Hill; Epilogue Books in Ballard; M Coy Books downtown; and all the B Dalton Booksellers stores. Bookworm Exchange in Columbia City is likely to close this spring.
The legendary but struggling Elliott Bay Book Co. is moving to Capitol Hill in March to try to stay alive.
The big chains will be next. Did you know Borders, with more than 500 stores nationwide, is now a penny stock at risk of being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange?
Two weeks ago the city of Laredo, Texas, lost its last bookstore. Now to walk the aisles and touch a book, they have to drive 150 miles to San Antonio. Laredo's no podunk place — with 220,000 people, it's bigger than every city here, save Seattle.
Could that happen here? The end of bookstores?
"I can't imagine it," Russell says. "But I'm crazy about books. I need to turn the pages. To feel the weight in my hand. It's what got me into all this trouble!"
Outside City Books, there's a plaintive sign asking people to "buy local" because it builds "community cohesiveness." Bookstores, it says, are "the ultimate social networking sites."
Interestingly, a couple of the bigger local independent bookstores are facing the end of the Gutenberg era by going back to their roots. Third Place Books, in Lake Forest Park, and University Bookstore have installed a $75,000 gizmo called the Espresso Book Machine that can print out a complete paperback from a digital file for $10 or so in about 10 minutes.
The idea is, then bookstores won't have to stock books on shelves (or at least as many). No delivery costs, no storage, no returns. The book buyer gets an unlimited catalog of the world's books straight from the printer. A "book ATM."
I like it. But I also wonder: You can park this device anywhere — the drugstore, Wal-Mart. It's basically a Kindle or an iPad with a printer. So why do we need bookstores again?
What could save them? Maybe if they served booze with the books?
The pace of all this change is only going to accelerate. Cindy Russell and I commiserated about how the same dizzying shifts are rocking my business, newspapers. If it's any consolation, I said to Russell, these times we're living through right now truly are epic — a cultural sea change that occurs maybe once a couple of hundred years.
I wouldn't be surprised if in 10 years Seattle has only a handful of bookstores, mostly selling used or niche books. Maybe five years. To keep sane, I try not to go there on whether there will be a newspaper.
I wished Russell luck with keeping City Books afloat.
"I better go — my meter's expired," I said.
She let loose a perfect gallows' laugh.
"Is that a metaphor?"
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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