E-readers endanger bookstores

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Clark County’s big-chain bookstores are at risk. And the odd thing is, it’s because our most avid readers are reading even more than they used to.

Most of us read every day, but we don’t necessarily buy a lot of books. Then there are the super readers — folks who may go through a book or more a week. Some spend hours at the library and never spend a penny on the words they devour. But others prefer to buy their books. They read so much that even though they’re a small number of people, they have a big influence on bookstores.

Now many of these book-buying super readers are buying Kindles, iPads, Nooks or other digital readers. Seattle-based Amazon.com recently reported that it’s making more money through the sale of electronic books than by selling paperbacks and hardcovers.

Excluding the $100 to $200 upfront cost of an electronic reader, buying books is actually cheaper with a device such as a Kindle. Best-seller “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” has an official list price of $27.95. Though it can be bought new for $11.92 at Amazon.com, that discount becomes less impressive when you factor in shipping costs and time spent waiting for the book to arrive. It’s only $9.99 for the Kindle, and it’s available instantly.

This is exciting stuff for super readers. Because books are so much cheaper in digital form, big readers can buy more books for the same amount of money.

What does this mean for local bookstores? The answer may vary depending on the store.

National booksellers are clearly worried. Borders in August inked a deal to sell Build-A-Bear Workshop’s stuffed animal kits in its stores, so it doesn’t have to rely on book sales alone. Barnes & Noble is trying to fend off a hostile takeover because of its flagging stock price.

Locally owned bookstores — which tend to sell used books alongside new — seem to be doing better. Mel Sanders, owner of Cover to Cover Books and Espresso in Vancouver, said she’s not particularly concerned about e-readers because she serves a different niche from Borders or Barnes & Noble. She specializes in older and harder-to-find books, not just the newest retail products. Some of her regular customers have picked up Kindles, but they still stop by the store, and sales are up this year over 2009.

The past 30 years saw the rise and fall of the video rental industry. When people started owning VHS and Betamax machines in significant enough numbers, local shops rose up to offer them movies. Those mom-and-pop shops were bought up by chains like Hollywood Video and Blockbuster in the 1990s.

In the past decade the biggest movie renters have abandoned the local rental shop for Netflix, which offers unlimited rentals — many available instantly through the “streaming” function — for as little as $9 per month. Without those big spenders, big video businesses are disappearing, leaving small independent shops like Vancouver-based Movie Movers to fill in the gaps.

Bookstores have been around for a lot longer than video shops. The thought that many may disappear next is hard to fathom. The most voracious readers, noses buried in their digital readers, may not even notice the change.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.