Not more than a day goes by that I don't dream about opening a bookstore (complete with a full grilled-cheese and soup bar in the back), but I'm beginning to think that if I don't hurry and if I keep reading stories of doom and gloom, like this report on the hard times faced by Seattle indie bookstore owners, it might just remain a dream instead of eventually turning into a nightmare:
The bookstores that have closed had survived the advent of online book retailer Amazon and the incursion of chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, plus competition from big-box retailers like Costco and Wal-Mart, which sell discounted books cheek by jowl with baby clothes and bath mats. Will Seattle's ever-rising cost of living and doing business eat further into the already low margins of bookselling, putting the city's "literate city" reputation in jeopardy?
Seattle is an exceptional reading town, but national trends are not encouraging — even in cities with highly educated populations like Seattle's. Miller, who runs the "Most Literate Cities" survey, recently reviewed five years of survey results, and found what he called a "disturbing" trend: "While Americans are becoming more and more educated in terms of their time spent in school and their education level accomplished," Miller wrote, "they are decreasing in terms of literate behaviors. This is particularly obvious in our lack of support of bookstores and the constantly diminishing circulation of newspapers."
In his five-year review, Miller noted that 43 out of 59 of the cities studied had a higher percentage of high-school graduates than they did five years ago, and 46 of the cities a higher percentage of college graduates. But "not a single city in our survey has more independent bookstores now than five years ago," Miller writes. "Fifty-seven out of 60 cities reported fewer retail booksellers in 2007 than in 2003; in several, the number of booksellers per capita dropped by half of what was reported in 2003."
Of urgent concern in other national surveys of America's reading habits has been a pronounced decline in reading among young people, and Couth Buzzard manager Theo Dzielak noticed a trend among his customers: They included families with young children, and legions of baby boomers, but a noticeable gap in young-adult shoppers: "We get a lot of moms and dads with their kids; but if someone comes in who's 30 years old, we want to genuflect and thank you for coming in."