What’s the ebook doing to indie bookstores?

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I don’t know if our independent bookstore BookPeople has slayed anyone yet. Many books are sold at Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco and HEB stores. BookPeople is a local treasure, to be sure. But its owner rattled his saber recently to say the store’s success, and shunning ebooks, defies the trend. What trend, exactly?

That B&N and Borders and Books A Million have put indie stores out of business? Yes, true. In every major city there’s at least one BookPeople, like Tattered Cover in Denver, or A Clean Well Lighted Place or City Lights in SF, or Powell’s in Portland. Smaller indie stores, like BookWoman in Austin, suffer more from the Boxes. Where the BookPeople owner goes awry is thinking ebooks won’t matter: “One thing you can’t do with a digital book is get it signed by an author… you can’t drop it in the swimming pool by mistake and have it work when you pick it up.”

But unsold ebooks have no return costs, and scant delivery fees. Physical books won’t die – but these comments sound like Blockbuster insisting “movie rental via mail will never work.” Consider the percentage of books sold at BookPeople with no chance of being signed, or the number dropped into swimming pools. These are not great reasons to dismiss ebooks. Reselling used books, lending them to friends, marking up ebooks easily: those are real shortcomings.

I pray for the continued health of BookPeople, which has shrunk in size from its zenith in the 90s, after its so-modest beginnings as Grok Books when I arrive in Austin in the 70s. Such survival would be a more prudent goal than hoping to slay anything. And if this store could become an outlet for indie ebook buying, somehow, tying the store experience with the advantages of ebook cost and storage, that might break some genuine new ground in Austin.

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