Are Bookstores Necessary?

8 mins read
A store sign on the side of a building
Photo: Phil Hopkins

On Sunday, Vroman’s closed its Hastings Ranch branch.

In January, Joel Sheldon, whose family has owned the iconic bookstore for more than a century, announced on Instagram that he’s ready to retire at age 80, and is seeking a buyer for the enterprise which includes Book Soup in WeHo as well as the Hastings Ranch location, the latter being the first to go.

A sign on a newspaper
Photo: Victoria Thomas

Vroman’s opened its doors in 1894, girding its claim to be California’s largest and oldest independent bookstore.  San Francisco’s City Lights is a dewy teenybopper by comparison, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953. In January, Sheldon told KTLA5 that he will not sell to the national retail chains.

Vroman’s has repeatedly declined our requests for an interview, but there’s no silencing book people on the importance of paper versus vapor — hard-copy books versus eye-tiring pixels on a flickering screen — and print versus audio.

In 2022, Gallup polls reported that Americans read a total of 12.6 books a year, a lower figure than recorded in any prior survey dating back to 1990. The analysis revealed that US adults are reading roughly two to three fewer books annually than we did between 2001 and 2016, and that the greatest drop in readership is among college students.

A sign on the side of a building
Photo: Phil Hopkins

While we have no data on Vroman’s merch mix, items other than books, cloth tote bags, jewelry, socks, mugs, bookmarks, seemed to move briskly. My favorite skully scarf, a McQueen knockoff, was snapped up at the now-defunct Hastings Ranch location right after Halloween, for half-price. 

And here it must be said that printed books, like the LPs they somewhat resemble as retro cultural artifacts, are cumbersome. They can easily overpopulate and completely overtake every inch of available space. They are brutally heavy, thus expensive, to pack, move, ship. These are considerations in 2024, in the midst of a contracting economy.

Many of us are downsizing, and many not by choice. In our region, astronomical housing costs find lots of folks, from students to newlyweds to empty nesters, living smaller. Economic challenges may summon a willingness to relocate, and mobility is not easily compatible with a personal library of any substance.

Given the current deconstruction of American shopping patterns, perhaps the bookstore of the future will be mobile and flexible, more like a traveling medicine show than a stalwart cathedral that requires our hushed reverence.

We’re always told that the data do not lie. But which of the trends is most relevant? In spite of the fact that Americans are reading fewer books, market research analyst IBIS World states that the number of bookstores in the USA is growing — 43,100 bookstores in the USA as of 2023, an increase of 0.5 percent over 2022.

Can this proliferation last? Perhaps the answer to the riddle is re-imagining what a bookstore needs to do to best meet the changed buying habits of the target customer. Across the country, some independent booksellers now depend on pop-ups and shared, hybrid spaces to avoid the pressure of a lease and expenses associated with property-owning. This differs from the veneration of the bookstore as a holy place, a sacred edifice. I’ve been “shushed” more than once in Rizzoli.

The giddy Museum of Ice Cream is one proof of concept for this less formal way of approaching cultural experiences while the traditional museum aspires to being as firmly rooted as the Parthenon.

Given the current deconstruction of American shopping patterns, perhaps the bookstore of the future will be mobile and flexible, more like a traveling medicine show than a stalwart cathedral that requires our hushed reverence. In this re-imagined setting, maybe books and authors appear, interact, and then move on, possibly creating through impermanence a more durable business model for the new era of reading.

Monica Fernandez, Media Director for Red Hen Press, says “Bookstores are central hubs of community, and Vroman’s selling, the closing of the Hastings Ranch location, and the states of limbo that Underdog Bookstore in Monrovia and Octavia’s Bookshelf in Pasadena are all in illustrate the dire societal shift away from ‘third places.’ Bookstores are more than just places to buy books. We go to bookstores for the atmosphere, the smell, the feeling of the books in your hands. We go to find those friendly faces in the store that are all seeking the sense of camaraderie and community that we usually don’t get reading a book in bed. You can’t get that feeling on Amazon after clicking the ‘Buy’ button. When you buy something from an indie bookstore, you know your money is going towards supporting a small business and supporting your local community. There’s something magical about that.”

A woman standing in front of a building
Nikki High, who opened Octavia’s Bookshelf in February, 2023, says that she is “crestfallen” by the closure of Vroman’s Hastings Ranch. Photo: Andrew Thomas

As background, Nikki High launched Octavia’s Bookshelf with crowdsourcing, and now offers customers the Patreon model. Her utterly charming inclusive bookstore, which is devoted to the works of BlPOC authors, has endured hate-speech and attacks. In the interest of creating a community hub, Octavia’s Bookshelf hosts craft hangout sessions, like Stitch ‘n’ Bitch (a “Kiki House” of sorts), meditation, and a full calendar of family-friendly community events.

This communal feeling, grounded in the tactile, may be the key to the endurance of bookstores as we know them, even in altered form.

LGBTQ-owned Underdog Bookstore also opened in 2023, almost exactly a year ago. but now states calmly on its Web site “We currently only ship our books,” although items are available for pickup at its 312 South Myrtle Avenue location in Old Town Monrovia. In response to monthly threats and hate speech, Nathan Allen who co-owns the shop with his husband Thomas Murtland, strategically offers discounts in an attempt to diffuse homophobia, Holocaust denial and other forms of racism.

Allen encourages customers to donate their Underdog purchases to little libraries, the curbside variety, around their neighborhoods, as a form of grassroots—some would say guerilla—education.

Our request for comment from Underdog Bookstore went unanswered as we go to press, but media posts suggest that Underdog will remain in business until the end of June. The timing is perhaps reflective of the fact that last year’s physical harassment and verbal assaults escalated with L.A. Pride, which returns on June 8th.

Allen and Murtland hope to find a local investor who will assume the remainder of their one-year lease.

The concept of a bookstore as a third place, meaning a safe, neutral gathering spot is not new. Even “Seinfeld”’s George Costanza, a character hardly known for his literary proclivities, has a memorable episode in Brentano’s, drawn in by girl-watching and foiled by the high fiber content of bran muffins. And the golden days of Borders Group, the megachain that went belly-up in 2011 due to lack of agility and innovation, lured shoppers with Borders Café maple lattes, breakfast sandwiches, stuffed pretzels and the like, although unsuccessfully in the end.

The Borders subsidiary Waldenbooks also went down with the ship when Borders Group filed for bankruptcy. And, bad news for George Costanza, by the 1990s, the Brentano’s brand was part of the Borders-Waldenbooks Group division of Kmart, and the Borders bankruptcy liquidated the last of the Brentano’s locations.

Crown Books had been liquidated a decade earlier. 

B.Dalton, once the largest retailer of hardcover books in the United States, closed the last of its 779 locations in 2013, although it may be worth puzzling over that Barnes & Noble rebranded its mall location in Oviedo, Florida as a B.Dalton in 2022. 

Although the argument seems reasonable — that bookstores need to be an immersive experience shaped around wandering, sampling, browsing, grazing and discovering, versus the briskly transactional, hunter-gatherer nature of an online purchase — the Borders narrative may bear closer examination.

Does snacking and kibbitzing really lead to book sales sufficient to keep the lights on? History suggests that the answer may be no. 

Although she occasionally denies it, de-cluttering expert Marie Kondo has recommended keeping no more than 30 books in your home at one time. Correctly or not, this puts us in mind of people who select and shelve books based on the colors of their bindings, perhaps inspired by Auntie Mame’s declaration that they’re “…awfully decorativedon’t you think?” 

And, sad to say, fewer and fewer people want your used books. This is a dispiriting realization when you’re finally ready to release all of those oversized Taschen art tomes or wheezy histories. Donated books in good condition are, however, welcome at The Friends of the Pasadena Public Library (FOPPL) located at the Jefferson Elementary School campus,1500  East Villa Avenue, between Hill and Allen, due east of the Jefferson Library Branch.

There’s a donation bin on Villa Avenue to the east of the Library under the huge tree. No textbooks, magazines or cassettes, please. The FOPPL Bookstore is open M, T, W, T, Sat, 11:00 Am – 4:00 PM, closed Friday and Sunday. 

Apollo presides over precious volumes at The Iliad Bookshop. Photo: Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton, Manager of The Iliad Bookshop in NoHo, where cats, often named for mythic heroes, laze among rare, obscure and just plain strange print inventory with an arts and literary focus, says, “Unless a book is very badly damaged, we never throw any book away that’s offered to us. If we can’t sell it in the store, we keep giveaway boxes outside for our community to enjoy and every book is eventually re-homed.” 

Successful used bookstores like The Iliad depart from the idea of the bookstore as being about things other than books. Morton says, “The only non-book items we sell are reading glasses, and once a year we put out a limited-edition tee shirt. We don’t even have tote bags.”

People do linger among the stacks, but they are drawn here by that nostalgic old-book smell rather than the need for a more varied sensory experience.

Morton adds, “Our store is currently doing very well. As with so many other small businesses, we took a big hit from the pandemic and at this point we don’t know if we’ll ever return to our old hours or staffing. Before 2020, we were open 78 hours a week. Now it’s 40 hours a week. We have half the staff size we had pre-Covid. But we’re doing just fine, and Saturdays in particular are an absolute zoo, with non-stop lines at multiple registers and parking taken up for a block around us.”

Adrienne Bass, Friends of the Pasadena Public Library Bookstore Manager, attracts families and young readers with creative, emotionally engaging events like the upcoming “Name the Stuffed Animal Contest” planned from July 1 through August 17, where interested parties need to fill out their application in person at the East Villa Avenue location. The decision not to offer the application online is strategic: the goal is to bring creative, curious minds onto the bookstore premises.

“An in-store experience is a lot more fun and you find titles that you might not see when you shop at places like Amazon.”

Adrienne Bass

Bass says “Holding a book is visceral, emotional and a magical feeling. A hard copy is easier on the eyes.  Phone screens and iPads cause eye strain.  Many older folks don’t like using a computer, phone, iPad or Kindle, but youngsters will probably phase out hard copy books.  I do hope that brick and mortar stores, including stores like Vroman’s and used bookstores, like ours, will endure.”

“I think people will continue to want to browse and shop and unlike shopping online, an in-store experience is a lot more fun and you find titles that you might not see when you shop at places like Amazon,” she says. “Amazon is great if you are in a hurry and need a book immediately, like for a book club, or special event, or you just want to read it today, and, yes, it is a little cheaper than a store such as Vroman’s.  Used bookstores are also a source for materials that might not be available online, and many stores can special order books for the customers. And physical bookstores really bring reading to life by offering author talks and book-signings.”

There’s no denying that seeing and hearing an author not on Zoom but in the flesh can be a transcendental moment for readers. And, quite apart from the chatty tribal aspects of social mingling with others over a buffet of books, indie bookshops may also be seen as the last line of defense against censorship in the form of book-banning.

The challenge is not only to keep the selection diverse, but to keep the retail environment safe for diversity as well, not to mention profitable.

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/2zma

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

3 Comments

  1. Kmart bought Borders in 1992, and I gather that much of the original senior management left. I know that Borders opened too many locations. From my office in downtown Washington, two Borders locations were within a twenty-minute walk either way, and three more in Montgomery County were easily reached by the Metro Red Line. It was a revelation when it showed up, and I hated to see it go. I don’t think that it injured itself overdoing the cafes.

    I regard bookstores as necessary, and prefer to buy from local bookstores. It gets harder, for some of what I want to buy is not usually on the shelves, and the stores can be pretty bad at handling special orders. I sometimes end up buying from Powell’s or the Strand what I’d rather buy from a store two miles away.

    I find Marie Kondo silly on books, and not just books. On the other hand, Emerson discovered that Walter Savage Landor did not keep books–he gave them away when he was done with them. And I recall that Helene Hanff had just one bookshelf, and was strict in culling it. My sympathies are with the people like Jacques Bonnet, who had forty thousand books, according to his Phantoms on the Bookshelves.

  2. I used to LOVE Border’s bookstores. Browsing in the West Hollywood location was a lot of fun and when my first book came out, more of their outlets carried it than did Barnes & Noble so I have a certain fondness for them, despite them being a “big box” store.

    You make a great point about the books themselves being hard to store, taking up space and so on. I think mention should also be made about the publishing model itself: steep discounts are given to the chains for ordering a larger quantity and giving shelf space to authors. If a store gets 100 copies of a book but only sells 2, it gets the discount and has the space to store them until they can be shipped back. An indie might sell the 2 it orders but won’t get the discount and therefore can’t pass it on to the customer.

  3. Bookstores ARE necessary. I shop in California’s two oldest bookstores- Vromans in Pasadena and The Book Den in Santa Barbara. I bought my first book at Vromans when I was six. Yes I KNOW I can get it on Amazon. I DONT CARE. I WANT TO DRIVE DOWN TO PASADENA AND GET IT FROM VROMANS. Nothing beats the temple of books.

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