I just got back from Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was amazed to find the Wordsworth bookstore almost bankrupt. I used to go to this store regularly, because they had a top-notch collection of books in every category–and at a discount. They had a sign up saying they were desperately seeking investors, and blamed their problems reasonably enough on online booksellers. (Tim O’Reilly has touched on this in his article
Buy Where You Shop.)
Being in the store today itself was so depressing, I don’t want to go back. They used to have two floors teeming with books; now they have one floor and much of the space on each shelf is taken up by a single face-out book. One rack contains little except O’Reilly catalogs.
In the 1970s, my father retired from his retail business (which included books), complaining that an independent seller couldn’t make it anymore. Some new chains had recently entered the book market, disrupting the business by offering a 15% discount on bestsellers.
Then Wordsworth opened in Harvard Square, shocking everybody by offering a discount on every book in the store. Their selection was also comparable to other stores.
Over the next decade, the book business in Harvard Square shriveled up, just like everywhere else. A lot of delightful stores with specialized selections disappeared. Wordsworth is one of three remaining bookstores in the area. But I was at Wordsworth fairly recently and it looked as if it was thriving.
As the ancient rabbi Hillel said, upon seeing a skull in the river, “You drowned others, so now you are drowned.”
Who will drown the online booksellers?