April 14
by Ken Reynolds

I would prefer to buy my books in person from an independent businessman, but in reality it happens only when I travel to a town that still has such stores. Several of my essays are about some of those places and I lament their passing. Our culture is changing, and  we will be poorer for the loss.

In 2008 I wrote the following article for “Smoke Signals” in recognition that times have changed, it is included in my 2010 book, Turned Pages.   KR

Where Did The Small Bookstore Go?

Do you remember small bookstores? Fifteen years ago almost every town had at least one bookstore for new books and another selling used books. The stores with new books had limited inventory — the latest best sellers and some of the classics. The remainder of the stock was devoted to cooking, crafts, current fads and children’s books. A real advantage was they would order almost any book you wanted and have it to you within a few weeks. Now those stores are hard to find. They could not compete with twenty to forty percent discounts on best sellers.

Less than twenty years ago the trade group of independent booksellers, The American Association of Booksellers, had over 4000 members. Today, there are less than 1800 members. They have suffered the same fate of the small groceries, hardware stores and other merchants. The plight of the independent bookseller’s demise in the wake of the big chains is well known and was portrayed in the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan 1998 movie, “You’ve Got Mail.”

The small stores specializing in used books have fared no better. Many of them were truly independent and were not associated with a trade group. Instead of buying their inventory through distributors, those booksellers bought at estate sales and auctions and from individuals who no longer wanted their books. Those store were wonderful places to browse through. You never knew what you would find, but I always expected to find a good assortment of titles at inexpensive prices. Such places are difficult to find nowadays.

Several factors contributed to the demise of those little bibliophile havens. The first was the rise of the chain bookstores. It started with small shops, like Walden Books, in the shopping malls and grew to the big boxes: Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-a-Million, etc. Like every other independent merchant, the neighborhood bookseller could not compete with chain pricing. The small stores devoted to new books began going out of business, but the used-book stores continued — for a while.

In the middle 1990s people with something to sell discovered the web. Amazon.com was founded in 1994 as an on-line bookstore. Less than a year later eBay opened. That same year, I was exploring, trying to figure out this “web thing,” and found a used book for sale. Soon there were lots of individual booksellers listing their inventory on the web. It worked nicely for the owners of small shops with the time to list their inventory. It worked so well that many of them closed their stores to eliminate the cost of a storefront.

Savvy web entrepreneurs saw the opportunities. For a fee, they allowed booksellers to list inventory on a database operated by abebooks or alibris or bibliofind and several other .com sites. Instead of searching individual stores, potential customers go to one website and, in an instant, search the inventories of hundreds of dealers. That concept worked so well it caught the attention of the big retailers. Soon Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other large volume retailers were offering used books on their sites. There is also a site that searches the other sites — addall.com.

Buying Books on the Web

What does all this mean to the individual who lives in a small community and wants to buy a book? The answer depends on how soon you want the book, how much you are willing to pay and how resistant you are to certain things. Do you insist on buying in a store, or do you buy on the web?

If you want to go to a bookstore there is a good one in Cumming — Humpus Bumpus Books. They have new and used books, and the children’s section is outstanding. Jasper and Dawsonville have no bookstores. There are two listed in Ellijay, and I understand the store in Canton has a small used book section, but I have not visited either. Decatur has a reputation as a good place to shop for books. Larger towns still have a few stores specializing in used books. I recently visited one in Chattanooga and another in Tucson. Although several of the better-known dealers have closed their stores, Atlanta still has a several used book dealers.

I resist big cities. Rather than drive to Atlanta I use the web to buy most of my books. Yes, as much as I enjoy the feel of searching bookshelves, I am a contributor to the passing of the brick-and-mortar bookstores. However, when I buy on the web I try to help keep the small bookseller in business

There are at least two dozen or more websites to search for books. That number does not include the websites of individual booksellers. Among the more popular are Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and they are good sites. There are other large retailers whose sites are equally good — Borders, Books-a-Million and Powell’s for example. If you want to make your purchase and move on to doing something else those are the sites for you, especially if you are buying new books.

On the other hand, you may want look around for the best buy, or a bargain. You may prefer to buy a used book. Did you miss a book signing and would like to have an autographed copy of your favorite author’s newest novel? Perhaps you want an older book that is no longer in print (a first edition of The Sun Also Rises) or an unusual book (the one your mother’s great Uncle Henry wrote in 1890.) How do you find books like those on the web?

You could go to one of the major retailer sites. This works well for recently published books, but less well for older or out-of-print books. Many of the major retailers are associated with a used book dealer database. A good example: I recently searched amazon.com for a book. My search yielded fifty-two (52) copies for sale; thirty-seven (37) new and fifteen (15) used. Individual dealers hold the used books. They are not part of Amazon’s inventory. The dealer’s pay Amazon to include their books as part of the search results. A real advantage to this approach is that you make payment through Amazon’s payment system. Except for specific search results the above holds true of all the major retailer’s web sites. I cannot recommend one over another. Which one you select will depend on your personal likes and experiences.

I buy books often and I like to search for the best value. In the example above a copy of Edward Larson’s Magnificent Catastrophe, list price $27.00. On amazon.com prices ranged from $17.81 for a used copy to $23.32 for a new book. All my price references include tax, shipping & handling.

On barnesandnoble.com there was one new copy listed at $24.79 for members and $27.11 for non-members. When I clicked on the used and out-of-print tab, I found five (5) new, one (1) like new and one (1) very good. Prices ranged from $16.18 to $26.95.

A used book was my goal, and I wanted to be confident that it would be in close-to-new condition and reasonably priced. I went to ABE, one of my favorite used book sites, at abebooks.com.

The ABE website opened in 1996. It is one of the oldest sites for used book dealers. As I write this more than 13,500 booksellers with a combined inventory of over 100 million books do business on the ABE site. Of course, many of the dealers will be offering the same titles that other dealers offer, but such duplication makes for price competition.

On ABE I found at least forty (40) used copies ranging in price from $15.50 to $44.63. I chose the $15.50 one, but not because it was the least expensive. I bought it because the seller, a small shop in Mount Laurel, NJ, described it as in near fine condition; in reputable book dealer language that term translates as almost new and unmarked. I paid with a credit card through the ABE site.

visit Ken Reynolds on The Authors and Bios page