Friends, Romans, fellow readers, lend me your ears: I come before you today to declare that the state of “Bookworld” is strong.
It is tempting to make this declaration every fall when more high-profile, delectable books are released in a week than can be read in a month, but the evidence extends beyond the greatness of books themselves.
Year-to-year sales of print books are up 2.5 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to Publishers Weekly. No one believes any longer that the e-book will disrupt the printed book, and in fact the evidence shows that they will continue to fulfill their own niches quite comfortably.
Yes, some of that increase is attributable to a Trump bump as books like “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff and “Fear: Trump in the White House” by Bob Woodward have boosted adult nonfiction by 5.7 percent, even as adult fiction has declined.
But let us not forget that adult fiction is only the next “Gone Girl” away from rebounding to previous levels.
The number of independent bookstores also continues to grow, both in terms of the number of stores and overall sales. The National Booksellers Association reports that there are 40 percent more independent bookstores today than in 2009.
However, not all the news in Bookworld is positive. Barnes & Noble is, according to CNNMoney, “in serious trouble.” Its CEO, Demos Parneros was fired in July following charges of sexual harassment, and its same-quarter sales are down more than 6 percent.
But even the troubled times for Barnes & Noble suggest a silver cloud. Bookworld is communicating what people want in their physical stores: something local, curated and appropriate to the place in which it operates. Mass retailing seems inconsistent with what readers want, as anyone who has set foot in one of those bricks-and-mortar Amazon abominations knows.
As rosy and wonderful this picture of Bookworld is, there is a threat on the horizon, and we must be vigilant.
That potential threat? Real estate.
Writing recently at Electric Lit, Erin Bartnett highlights the plight of New York’s McNally Jackson Bookstore, which has had to leave its longtime Soho location because it can no longer afford the rent. As the economic recovery drives up the value of real estate, businesses that may be profitable, but run on a low margin, are squeezed out.
Bartnett highlights a series of tweets from Lexi Beach, the co-owner of Astoria Bookshop in Queens, N.Y. Beach identifies a fundamental problem confronted by neighborhoods and neighborhood businesses: When the real estate is owned by people who do not live in the neighborhood, they do not care about maintaining the kinds of spaces that make neighborhoods most livable. As long as maximum rent is being paid, so be it.
What we in Bookworld must remember is that, in many cases, these independent bookstores were early on the scene because they had to go where the rents were low. The mere presence of the bookstore attracts other businesses and more people, starting a process that may ultimately price that bookstore out of the neighborhood it helped revitalize.
The solution, as Beach says, is in seeing bookstores and other local businesses as part of the community and developing policies and practices that make it possible for small businesses to thrive.
Our communities are ecosystems; they benefit from the presence of bookstores. We know this. The problem is going to be especially acute in places like New York City, but it could happen anywhere, including Chicago.
Times are good in Bookworld, which is why we need to be planning for a future when things aren’t so robust.
John Warner is the author of “Tough Day for the Army.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.
1. “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin
2. “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath
3. “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold
4. “Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson
5. “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
— Stephanie P., Chicago
What I like about this list is that it has four books that will almost certainly continue to be read for the foreseeable future, even though they’re 10 or more years old. For Stephanie, I’m dipping into the recent reads of another of this week’s requesters: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara
1. “The Terranauts” by T.C. Boyle
2. “I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara
3. “The Last Time I Lied” by Riley Sager
4. “The Mermaid” by Christina Henry
5. “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
— Stacy M., Campton Hills, Ill.
The volume of requests makes it impossible to feature all of them in the column, but Stacy’s came to me in June and I’ve been meaning to use it since. Apologies for the tardy reply, and to those who send in but don’t get a response, send again! I think Stacy will enjoy Dennis Lehane’s “Since We Fell.”
1. "What Alice Forgot" by Liane Moriarty
2. "The Nightingale" by Kristin Hannah
3. "The Rumor" by Elin Hilderbrand
4. "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty
5. "Grist Mill Road” by Christopher J. Yates
— Christine S., Crown Point, Ind.
This request is from March. I feel shame, but I promise I’m doing my best. For Christine, another writer I’m going to keep recommending until she gets the recognition she deserves: “Blame” by Michelle Huneven.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read to firstname.lastname@example.org.