Plan on picking up Confidence Men for dad or The Marriage Plot for mom at a local bookstore this holiday season?
Suffocated by the rise of online merchants like Amazon, old brick and mortars across the country are fast going the way of the dinosaur. And nowhere is this trend more pronounced than the highly literate and affluent Main Line, where, after the closure of the in September (and another in Bryn Mawr), there remains not a single bookstore for new titles.
But in the face of the industry’s downward trajectory, could downtown Ardmore fill this niche and support a bookstore of its own?
Ardmore Initiative executive director Christine Vilardo said that while she’d love to see a bookstore come to town, the obstacles to such an opening are significant.
“I wish we could have one. We supported a store for a long time before its owner died a couple years ago,” Vilardo said, referring to Ardmore Paperback Books ( has since taken over its storefront.) “Bookstores are facing the same challenges as other retailers though, with online sales.”
Vilardo added that while Danny Salzburg’s shop was a modest success, an entrepreneur would be hard-pressed to replicate his model.
“It was a pretty low overhead operation,” she said. “He owned the building, and he dealt in a lot of used books as well, so I think it would be tough. We would all love to have a bookstore here, but, really, how many independent bookstores are there in the country?”
Shed no tears?
Less sentimental types than Vilardo argue the industry is struggling for the best of reasons: it’s being replaced by something better.
Tech critics like Slate’s Farhad Manjoo point out that, relative to even the most competitive bookstores, Amazon offers a much broader selection, a more easily searchable inventory, the convenience and portability of e-readers, and customer reviews and recommendation algorithms that steer buyers to the right book more reliably than even the most thoughtful clerk.
Even the most intractable of the old bookstores’ advantages—the customers’ ability to actually sit down with a book and leaf through it before filing through to the register—has been wiped out by Amazon’s move to let readers view the first chapter of each book in their digital catalogue.
Of course, the real trump card is cost. According to Manjoo, most bookstores charge a 30 to 50 percent markup over Amazon even before you account for the sales tax that online retailers don’t have to levy.
“In other words,” Manjoo wrote, “for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two [at Amazon].”
Harrison Demchick, a deputy publisher with Bancroft Press, said that publishers are ambivalent about the new direction of the trade. While they welcome the new efficiencies, many are book lovers who mourn the loss of their houses of literary worship.
According to Demchick, the growing market share of Internet merchants enables his firm to publish niche titles that wouldn’t make economic sense in the era when books were selected from wooden bookshelves and nowhere else.
“It levels the playing field,” he said.
Losing ‘real-life literary culture’
Still, Demchick concedes the way he prefers to buy his books is, indeed, in bookstores. And while he thinks more contraction is likely to occur for the old brick and mortar shops, he expects the industry will eventually reach an equilibrium. There is, he thinks, still a place for the bookstore.
Optimism aside, the de-emphasis of the traditional bookstore is a loss keenly felt by many—like novelist Richard Russo, who wrote in a New York Times editorial recently that with the mom-and-pop book retailers will go the “real-life literary culture that exists in unexpected places.”
On the “literary culture” battlefield of Lower Merion Township, Beverly Potter is the proverbial last man standing.
While Potter (“Like Harry,” she explains) admits that , her 13-year old used bookstore in Bryn Mawr, has been struggling of late—paradoxically, she says, the closing of Borders hurt her business because it shattered the new/used symbiosis between the two—she blames her shop’s struggles more on broader economic conditions than the rise of the online merchant.
“It’s the recession,” she said. “When things turn, economically, I’ll be better.”
Creating a ‘cultural nexus’
Potter also maintains, to borrow from the author of a few of her 70,000 volumes, that rumors of the bookstore’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The 40-year veteran of the industry said she thinks Ardmore could support a new bookstore.
“I’d open a new bookstore at this point, because we have no new bookstore for adults between Philadelphia and Valley Forge,” she said, adding the caveat that, to be successful, the store would “need something that makes you part of the fabric of the community.”
The strategy has worked for Rita Maggio.
Maggio, the owner of BookTowne, a small bookstore in Manasquan, New Jersey, says the way she’s stayed solvent in this difficult market is a strong connection to her city.
In the four and a half years since the shop’s opening, Maggio has forged an alliance with a local theater, hired literate and competent clerks, and gone to lengths to ensure that BookTowne wasn’t just a retail operation, but a cultural nexus. She holds regular signings, readings, and Q&A sessions with relevant authors. This past Friday, Maggio was hosting Mary Higgins Clark.
“The person who rented the store to me originally wanted to make it a culture center,” Maggio joked, though it’s clear she’s taken the wish to heart.
Still, for all her inventiveness and pluck, BookTowne is just a modest success.
“Each year we struggle to make it work,” Maggio admitted. “This is not a lucrative business.”
Meanwhile, for the most recent quarter, Amazon posted a gross profit of $3.83 billion.