Get a Reading on Bookstores

In an article published on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website in mid-December, Andrew W. Hait, a survey statistician/economist with the agency, gathered information from various U.S. government sources to provide insight into the location of physical bookstores in the late 2010s.

The general overview reviewed numbers that are familiar to most members of the industry. Bookstore sales fell from a high of $16.8 billion in 2007 to $9.12 billion in 2019, a decline of 45% (bookstore sales were $6.50 billion in 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic, but are on track to approach 2019 levels in 2021). Over the same period, the number of stores fell by around 40%, from just under 10,000 to 6,045 in 2019.

The figures include data from chain bookstores, university stores, independent general bookstores and religious bookstores that focus on selling new books. The continued erosion of stores and sales reflects the decline of major chains, including the closure of Borders Group in 2011, then the second largest bookstore chain in the country; widespread closures of Christian bookstores; and the decline in the number of generalist independents in the face of rapid growth in online sales.

Since the last Borders outlet closed in 2011, the pace of store closings has slowed, while sales fell 33% between 2011 and 2019. (Hait points out, somewhat haphazardly, that despite the number of closings stores, there were more bookstores in 2019 than home centers, which had 5,952 outlets, and department stores, which had 3,856 locations.)

The report digs deeper to examine the inner workings of bookstores. According to data from the 2017 Economic Census (a survey conducted every five years), books accounted for 70.9% ($7.1 billion) of the total $10 billion in bookstore sales in 2017. products other than books that were sold in significant quantities to bookstores were:

● Office and school supplies and packaging materials ($412.3 million, 4.1%).

● Toys, games and hobby items ($378 million, 3.8%).

● Meals and beverages ($305.7 million, 3.1%).

Looking at what types of books are sold in bookstores, the report found that trade books accounted for 46% of total sales and textbooks generated 43%, followed by religious books at 6% and mainstream paperbacks, which represented 2%.

Data from the economic census also shows the competition that bookstores now face to sell their core product. In fact, book sales at outlets other than bookstores reached $8.3 billion in 2017, surpassing the $7.1 billion in books sold at bookstores that year. Of course, the main competition came from online sources (or electronic shopping, as the government calls it), where book sales, driven by Amazon, were $5.6 billion in 2017. The Clubs -Warehouses have been a key outlet for book sales for years, and sales through this channel were $1.4 billion in 2017.

The report also took a brief look at the bookstore’s workforce. Stores with paid employees (as opposed to bookstores without employers) employed 61,068 workers in 2019 and had a total payroll of $1.1 billion, which averages just $17,660 per year per employee.

Among other facts, the report reveals that there was one bookstore for every 54,299 people in the United States in 2019, with Nevada having the fewest stores per capita. Data from the Census Bureau’s 2018 Annual Business Survey confirmed what the industry has always known: there isn’t much diversity in the ranks of bookstore owners. Government analysis of individually owned stores found that 84.5% had white owners.

The report also includes data on bookstores without an employer or stores run by self-employed workers. There were 8,109 such outlets in 2018, with total sales of $339.8 million, an average of $41,901 per store.

A version of this article originally appeared in the 01/24/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: Get a reading on bookstores