Readers love bookstores. Even the most devoted library power user, audiobook aficionado, or ebook devotee enjoys wiling time away in the aisles. There’s perhaps nothing more romanticized in the bookish world than a secondhand bookstore brimming with stacks of books precariously balanced on every surface. They make for great Instagram pictures — but do they make for a good business model?
Speaking of romanticization, books are often conferred a certain status that almost no other object is. Reading isn’t just a hobby; it’s a lofty pursuit. Books aren’t just widgets; they’re sacred objects. Reading and books aren’t just associated with status and education. They’re also often associated with a kind of moral weight. It’s not unusual for everyone from BookTokers to booksellers to say they promote literacy, which certainly sounds like a noble pursuit.
Getting people to read (or buy) more books isn’t the same thing as promoting literacy, though, if we’re being completely honest. Increasing literacy would involve teaching people (whether kids or adults) the skills of reading, from the most basic phonics and decoding knowledge to more intricate strategies, like spotting motifs and themes, critically engaging with a text, and recognizing bias.
Convincing someone to pick up a random book doesn’t necessarily achieve any of those goals, and yet it still feels like a victory. Bookstores have an air of improving society, of being ethically superior to other businesses. When that veneer is scratched away, though, you’re left with a business that needs to make money. Apart from a handful of not-for-profit or communist/anarchist bookstores, they function in much the same way any other business does.
But while it’s fairly common for independent bookstores to do GoFundMe-style crowdfunding campaigns or to simply ask customers to place orders to keep the lights on, it’s unlikely that a local soap and cosmetics store or a boutique fashion location doing something like this would be received similarly. After all, they’re businesses. If they’re not profitable, why should they stay open?
I say all this as someone who loves bookstores. I was a bookseller for a decade, and I cherished that time. I enjoy browsing the shelves, and I frequent indie bookstores as often as possible. Why? Because I want them to stay in business! At the same time, though, I have a less rosy disposition toward the financial side of things.
When I started working for a used bookstore, there were piles of books on the ground, and nothing was catalogued online. It was exactly the kind of ~aesthetic~ used bookstore you might see on Instagram. People would come in and exclaim at how lovely it was…and often those same people would leave after 15 minutes of looking around without buying anything. Because the stacks were overwhelming, they trapped dust, and they blocked shelves.
Since then, the store has expanded (hooray!) and changed locations. There are no more piles on the floor, and everything is catalogued online. The booksellers there still have people come in and say how they miss the charm of the old store, and specifically that they miss the piles of books on the floor. The staff who had to spend hours moving piles of books around, lugging tubs of books up stairs without an elevator, and searching through the 18 places a title might be shelved largely disagree.
There’s a vision of used bookstores as tiny, cramped spaces filled from floor to ceiling with books in very little order at all. Tucked away in a corner is someone reading, who is likely cranky and will criticize your reading taste. They do not have the newest releases. The idea of finding a treasure in those piles is enticing, but it’s just not a sound business strategy most of the time, and it’s no surprise that these shops have largely disappeared. And that’s okay.
There are bookstores that provide value to the community beyond just selling items. They may host storytime for kids, or act as a space for community meetings, or they may donate to local charities. They can add character to a neighborhood, and the staff’s expertise and friendliness may be valued by tourists and locals alike. If their value goes beyond just providing books to buy, I can understand asking the community to support them in kind during difficult financial times, especially in the wake of an unforeseen disaster (like, say, an ongoing pandemic).
Bookstores are not inherently morally superior to any other business, though, and sometimes they just aren’t a good fit. Maybe it isn’t run effectively. Maybe there aren’t enough customers or the rent is too high. Maybe the staff is condescending or unhelpful. Maybe there’s too much competition. I don’t think readers have an obligation to support every physical bookstore. Sometimes, it’s their time to shut up shop.
So, support the bookstores you love, but make sure to take off the rose colored glasses if they start regularly asking the community for more money to stay afloat. And if you actually want to support literacy, consider donating or volunteering for your library or another local literacy organization. Sit on your local library board or show up to fight censorship! Because the real battles for literacy aren’t happening in a for-profit business.