The Death Of the Independent Bookshop

Posted on May 16, 2006

In a particularly snarky piece, Slate asks the question: What are independent bookstores good for? Tyler Cowen's answer: not much.

Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation-a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case. There are similar phenomena in the world of indie music fans ("Top 40 has to be bad") and indie cinema, which rebels against stars and big-budget special effects. In each case the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy to segregate, often artificially, one part of the market from the rest. But when it comes to providing simple access to the products you want, the superstores often do a better job of it than the small stores do: Borders and Barnes & Noble negotiate bigger discounts from publishers and have superior computer-driven inventory systems. The superstores' scale allows them to carry many more titles, usually several times more, than do most of the independents; so if you're looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore.


The real change in the book market is not the big guy vs. the little guy, or chain vs. indie stores. Rather, it's the reader's greater impatience, a symptom of our amazing literary (and televisual) plenitude. In the modern world we are more pressed for time, and we face a greater diversity of cultural choices. It was easy to finish Tolstoy's War and Peace when there were few other books around and it was hard to find them. Today, finishing it means forgoing many other options at our fingertips.

So, anyone who loves an independent bookstore is some kind of status-seeking literati who longs to be known as a reader with maverick, impressive tastes? That's absurd. We love small, interesting bookstores because we have fond memories of wandering through interesting book shops in Oxford, in New York, in San Francisco, or whatever city we might be in. Book shops are interesting, they smell good, have knowledgeable clerks and they have great atmosphere. Online ordering at the big chains can't be beat for selection and price: there's a place for both kind of stores.

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