I met Brooke Allen over the weekend, and yesterday thanks to Lee Siegelman I discovered her 2001 Atlantic article "Two—Make That Three—Cheers for the Chain Bookstores". I've always had slightly off-key opinions on this topic, because when I was a kid and there really were no chain bookstores, the independent book store where my family usually shopped was a place called Barnes & Noble. So mostly I've just been watching my local bookstore expand across the country, not watched local shops be stomped on by some giant. Still, by and large I've always come down on Allen's side of the argument despite some affection for independent stores.
Now, though, I wonder if the rise of the internet isn't going to lead to a rebalancing. After all, the practical advantages offered by the big chains, though very real, are done even better by the online retailers. Allen writes:
Wonderful though many of the independents were (and are), however, the fact is that most of the good ones were clustered in the big cities, leaving a sad gap in America's smaller cities and suburbs—the places, in fact, where most of the American population actually lives. Books-A-Million's 202 stores, for instance, are almost all located in the Southeast. Borders has from the beginning targeted another underserved market, the suburbs, and as a result the quality of life in American suburbia has radically changed over the past decade. This is a point that the urban intelligentsia, which loves to characterize the suburbs as a cultural wasteland, seems to have missed, or at least to have taken no interest in.
Amazon, Powells, and BarnesAndNoble.com, however, are located everywhere. And their stock is very comprehensive. Even for browsing purposes, they've actually gotten pretty good. If you have some sense of what kind of book you might want to buy and you don't need the book immediately, the practical advantages to shopping online are just enormous. Thus, what the brick and mortar store has to offer is, increasingly, not practical advantage but a bookstore experience. And though I think the chains actually do deliver a decent experience, they don't really match the better independents and I'm not sure they ever can since part of the experience of a well-liked independent bookstore, from Politics and Prose to Blue Hill Books is precisely it's independent-ness.
Now that the chains have primed large swathes of the country to think of "wandering around a bookstore looking for something to buy" as a possible activity, while online retailers have emerged offering to send you any book anywhere you want, could we be ready for a revenge of the independents? I see it as at least a distinct possibility. I've seen it argued recently and plausibly that Starbucks has done just as much to build the market for high-end coffee, and thus independent coffee shops, as it has to put existing independent shops out of business.