Used Bookstores: I love them even though they make me sneeze

When I first began pondering the future of the bookstore, my initial prediction was that used bookstores would be the first to  go. I suppose I was imagining the next generation of readers (you know, kids who think iPads and Kindles are old fashioned and who have really bad allergies because they never go outside to play in the dirt anymore because there’s now a Wii program for that) browsing the dusty, mildewy shelves of faded paperback novels and suddenly all dissolving into asthmatic fits of coughing and wheezing, which would inevitably lead to all used bookstores nationwide being closed down for health code violations.

But now, after having visited a few shops and talked with proprietors, I’m not sure I’m entitled to such a cynical view.

Used Book Prices

For a start, used books are cheap. In that sense, they offer the only price competition against ebooks and Amazon of any traditional route out there. True they don’t often carry new releases and therefore can’t really tap into the media hype surrounding trendy reads, but then again, that’s not really what used bookstore shoppers are looking for. Besides, I often want to keep up with the new releases, but inevitably I fall behind.  (Case in point, the books on my nightstand right now: War & Peace, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and Anthill by E.O. Wilson).

Family Friendly

Richard of Book Buyers in uptown Charlotte makes this point:

“Here in the Plaza Midwood area, we have couples and parents who bring their kids here to browse in the evenings. It’s an outing, something they can do with the whole family. It’s hard for them to do that on the internet.”

According to Richard, these family browsers almost always purchase something, even if it’s just a childrens book. This system of browsing and spontaneous buying works well for Book Buyers, as they get a lot of foot traffic where they’re located in Plaza Midwood. What’s more the demographics of the neighborhood seems to include individuals who value shopping locally and supporting independent business.

Life’s harder for the folks over at Book Nook in Cornelius, NC, where the only foot traffic they get is from people on their way to and from the Dairy Queen next door.

“Used books has never been a lucrative business, but this is the first year we felt like we were struggling,” said Allison, who attributes the slump to their location and the boom in ebooks.

It’s not all ebooks’ fault, though. What I’m coming to realize these days is that, for many people trying to get by in the current economy, books are a luxury commodity. When the government takes half your salary in taxes and you’re left with only a small sliver from your budget to devote to entertainment, what would you rather pay: $2:00 for a used book from a local store, $.99 cent (plus $199 for your Kindle) for an ebook, or $24.99 for a hardback copy of Bossypants? Yeah, probably not the hardback. Sorry, Tina. When the economy finally does improve, it will be interesting to see whether anyone will be willing to pay that much for a book. We are so used to everything being free and cheap nowadays, I can’t imagine ever going back to the old system of pricing books. But then, what will happen to booksellers? Writers? And that evening family stroll to your local used bookstore?

I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject: Do you shop at used bookstores? Have you noticed a change in how much you’re willing to spend on books?

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5 comments
  1. Ben said:

    I take pleasure in buying used books. As far as our third-world country’s economy is concern, we prefer them.

  2. Erin said:

    Fair point, Ben. I tend not to talk about bookstore culture as it exists in other parts of the world, particularly the developing world. I realize that this is a gross oversight on my part. You’ve inspired me to explore that question in future. Thanks!

  3. claire said:

    I was just thinking about those misty moments where one has the strange and wonderful opportunity to turn the old pages in a treasure trove of used books. I immediately thought of the dream dictionary and the symbolism of looking through books in your mind. I cannot imagine that our human shared consciousness might someday reveal long attic journeys to a chest where when you finally open it you discover, not a pile of old dusty books, but a brand new kindle. It seems much less romantic.

  4. Andy said:

    I like this site, but I was disappointed to read the line about the “government taking half your salary in taxes.” The last I checked, the top federal tax rate was nowhere near 50 percent, and if the troglodyte right-wingers and their ilk (who are not exactly a book-friendly crowd) take even more power, this country will begin to resemble one of those post-apocalyptic landscapes seen in sci-fi movies — not exactly fertile ground for bookstores, used or not. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

    • Erin said:

      Andy,

      Fair point about federal tax rates; I see you spotted my exaggeration. Some pay days it certainly feels like 50% goes to the IRS… I’m not opposed to paying taxes, so long as that money goes to worthwhile institutions. I don’t think blindly paying whatever tax rate the feds asks of us without questioning where that money is going is the way to a civilized society either.

      Thanks for commenting!

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