The Death of the Bookstore

I am currently in Portland/Vancouver and this morning I took a walk around downtown Vancouver Washington. Both bookstores I was looking for, are now shut up and gone. I shall simply have to hope to get to Powell’s in Portland sometime later this week.

I also received the news recently that Cokesbury is closing up ALL its vast array of actual bookstores. Of course before this Borders whole chain went belly up. This has put seminaries like Fuller and Asbury and numerous official UM seminaries into a pickle, not to mention a flurry of activity.

If we are to ask what is it that is killing off bookstores, the answer is obvious and clear as the shine on your computer screen. Computers and the Internet, and the sheer convenience of shopping at home by computer have been steadily killing off bookstores. Not only so, but last year, for the first time, Amazon announced that it had more digital book sales than hard copy sales. The times they are a changing, and not entirely for the better. Why not?

In the first place bookstores, like record stores, were places where you could go and actually examine the goods at length, ask advice from a knowledgable bibliophile about what was good to read, say in the category of mystery novels. Have a cup of coffee and sample a few actual books. Perhaps buy a used one. And all manner of things would be well for the book lover.

Disembodied books have the same problems as disembodied education in general. It doesn’t involve ethos, or real contact with actual other human beings in person. It doesn’t involve incarnational presence. It doesn’t involve a social dimension, say consulting your favorite owner of a book shop and building a friendship over the years. In short, it is a more gnostic approach to reading, learning, knowledge.

And then of course there is the further problem of not being able to trust the ridiculously hyperbolic reviews of books on Amazon and other sites, written by people who are hardly literateurs, or theologues, or experts in that particular kind of book. It is amazing to me how many people will simply buy a book online because it had a five star rating— but by whom, and why, and do you know whether or not any of the reviewers are even competent to do such a review? It may be an example of vox populi, but it is hardly as omniscient or helpful as vox dei, or at least the voice of an expert. Sometimes when a book becomes a best seller, it simply reflects the pathetic and trashy tastes of far too many Americans.

I saw this trend coming some years ago. It is why I went ahead and sold my library to Gordon-Conwell Charlotte. The actual value of good theological libraries if we are talking about hardcover books is on the decline due to digitizing of everything possible. We even had a segment of a recent faculty meeting at Asbury where authors like myself and Bill Arnold and Ken Collins and Craig Keener were asked if they would allow all or a lot of their works to be digitized for free use. Of course the answer was no way, because of copyright issues. Publishers are not about to give the whole store away for free, nor should they. Besides, it is a Biblical principle that a workman is worthy of his hire. Knowledge may be getting cheaper in the Internet and digital age, but it is also being cheapened in the process.

What I mean by that last sentence is, that I have to regularly tell students that you cannot trust a great deal of the stuff that is free on the Internet. Some of it you can, but you have to be able to critically evaluate which is which. And most students are not capable without help of doing so. There is usually a good reason why a book is free on the Internet somewhere: 1) it is out of print; 2) it is so old it is in the public domain anyway; 3) it is crap. What you will not get for free on the Internet in 98% of the cases is cutting edge good critical up to date scholarship on some subject.

So, all of this is a simple plea— let us not leave behind altogether the bookstore or real tangible books. We should not do this anymore than we should leave behind real face to face live education with full ethos and incarnational presence and personal interaction. The less personal education becomes, the less it is like the discipleship the earliest Christians received all the time.

  • theologyarchaeology

    I prefer bookstores but they do not have the selection i need anymore. Used bookstores are great but in this country there may be 1 or 2 that carry English works and then those are not cheap.

  • mickey

    Amazon in the UK pay ZERO tax to the UK government! go figure, its outrageous – I’m plucking up the muster to boycott them altogether :-)

  • Mark Stevens

    Great read. I would say two things, the Internet gives those like me the ability to learn how to write etc. Also, I went to buy a book at my local Christian bookstore today. It was out of stock. If it were in stock it would cost me $50. I was able to purchase the book, delivered to my door for half that price. That is hard to pass up. But at the end of the day I too lament the death of the bookstore. But what are we to do?

  • Michael Fox

    So, short of the government subsidizing bookstores to remain open–and we know how well that works out–the bookstore must conceptually reinvent itself as a profit center. I’ve often thought a bookstore should have invented the Starbucks experience which, of course, many have tried to emulate. It would make for an interesting exercise if the readers of this blog were to imagine and propose how a bookstore might look in ten years. What would a bookstore become to stand up against an Amazon? What might it do to survive financially, knowing that many people simply use bricks and mortar as a showroom for Amazon?

  • Joshua Lawson

    True. It’s sad to see the decline of the bookstore industry, but as you say, “times are changing.”

  • Marc axelrod

    When people look at all the books in my office, I always say that I have read one third of the books, the other third I’m going to read, and the other third are there just to make me look smart :)

    Dr. Witherington, I want to present a different perspective. 1. Digital books are convenient. I can carry all of your New Testament commentaries plus your Indeligle Image books in my pocket without giving myself a hernia.

    2. Digital books are commonplace. I don’t have to be in Portland Oregon to find that special something I’ve been looking for. I can find it in Potter Wisconsin by clicking a button.

    3. Digital books are easy to replace. If the house catches fire, all the books inside would be lost forever. But if your library is digital, all you have to do is buy a $69 Kindle, click a button, and you hve your library back again!

    4. Digital books encourage Christian workers. I know some people who have felt reluctant about going off to the mission field because they did not feel that they could access all the resources that they needed, but now because of the digital age they can carry a ministry library Of bibliophiliac proportions with them wherever they go in the world.

    5. Digital books are easy to hold, and you can make the print as large or as small as you would like, and adjust the Lighting as dark or as dim as you would like.

    6. Digital books are space savers. I don’t have any more space in my office for books. But I can continue to build my library because I have a phone and a Kindle and iPad Mini.

    7. You and Dr. Keener and Dr. Arnold and Dr. Collins Do not have to give away your books for free for them to get digitized. Everyone is going to get paid, In fact, you will probably get paid more than you would otherwise because there are a lot of people who will not buy your two Indeligible image books because they’re too fat. They would be more likely to buy them if they could download them. Tell Dr. Keener that I purchased his first volume on Acts1:1- 2:47 Because it was available as a Kindle download, and there’s no way I would’ve purchased it as a hardback.

    Having said all that, I thank God for libraries. I sit on the board of my local library. I encourage libraries to have large holdings. Overdrive might be the wave of the future, but right now, it’s very expensive for libraries to purchase digital copies of books to be loaned out to people over the Internet. A book that costs $9.99 on Kindle Costs a library three times that much for one digital copy for people to borrow.

    Incidentally, Even when bookstores were prominent and popular, most people didn’t buy books because of the opinion of a littérateur or bibliophile. They bought them because of an advertisement in a magazine, or The recommendation of a friend, or because it was a gift from a friend, or because it was in the library and the cover looked cool.

    I sometimes hear people say that you don’t get the same tactile experience holding an iPad mini as you do holding a book. I must confess that I have no idea what that means. When I read a book on my iPad Mini, it is the same information as it would be if I was reading from a paperback copy of that said book. There is no feeling Of nostalgia but I am no longer holding a big heavy tome. Knowledge is power, and when I am holding an iPad mini, it is packed with power.

    And by the way, I will buy your new book about work and rest and play as soon as it becomes available as a Kindle or digital download :-) God bless you. Hope I get to see you soon. Marc

  • Marc axelrod

    To me it doesn’t matter what container the book’s information is in, as long as we can have access to that information. And I do not believe we will see the demise of paper books. The library is one of the greatest ideas Benjamin Franklin ever had, and I am proud that my tax money goes to subsidize them.

    And I don’t believe We necessarily have to kiss the bookstore goodbye, either. Savvy, shrewd, visionary sales people can still make the bookstore viable. They have to be able to price match the online sales stores. They will have to offer services besides books. If I was starting a bookstore today, I would actually open the nicest coffeeshop I could, with lots of tables and cozy chairs, with several walls of the glitziest, glossiest, best-selling, popular books, along with some of the most penetrating, popular paperbacks and periodicals.

    The next thing I would do is cut a deal with Zondervan, InterVarsity press, Logos, and Baker books and whoever else so that for $99 a year, patrons could come in and wirelessly access any book or periodical they want while (and only while) they are in the store.

    There is a chain of used bookstores in our area called half-price books. Every time I go in there the place is packed. There is still in place in our culture for bookstores, sales people just need to be willing to change the way they do things with the times.

  • Jerry G. Disch, Pastor

    I have a kindle, Ipad, mac power book.. all able to provide digital reading of any book available in that format. I too like the ease in which I can carry a good part of my reference books around in such a compact fashion. But for me, nothing replaces have a hard copy in my hands. I think its a spatial type thing… . I too like to visit bookstores for the experience as much as the hunt… though I order most of my hard copies from online providers…. I am a mixed breed I guess… I have almost all of your books in both.. digital and hard copy… that reveals an even worse dilemma .. even though I appreciate digital books, I still have a need to get a hard copy…. perhaps therapy is needed… either way…. reading is a passion… even the cheerio box when eating breakfast…. bless you…

  • Ric Schopke

    I am sorry for the loss of Cokesbury stores and Borders, although Cokesbury moved out
    of our city a few years ago. We have recently had only one in the entire state of Florida.
    It is hard to find many academic Christian books in the Christian bookstores in our area.
    I enjoy shopping at the national chain bookstore (secular?) near us. I prefer buying
    from a local store where I can browse among real books. That said, I recently bought a
    book (real-life hardcover) online because the price was a little over half of the price in the
    same company’s store a few blocks from our house. I checked to see if I could purchase it
    for that price at the store. The clerk said he was sorry, but there wasn’t anything he could do.

  • Mike Clemens

    While in Portland last week, I shopped at Powell’s downtown; their Red Room has been a frequent stop over the years. But, parking is no longer free in their building unless one purchases $100, and most new books aren’t discounted. If you have time to find Windows Booksellers at Multnomah University, you’ll browse a much smaller venue crammed with used books relevant to the adjacent seminary. New books they carry are discounted. Their mother store in Eugene has an on-line catalog, but I enjoy wandering among the stacks of its large commercial-sized basement that more than matches Powell’s comparable inventory and is automated when I opt for technological access to a particular title.

  • Hal Tarleton

    The small city I’ve called home for more than 30 years lost its last bookstore about a year ago. Even though it was not a great bookstore — a Books-A-Million — its disappearance has left this city a lesser place. There’s no place to go except online and the public library. At least it hasn’t closed.

  • Tim Ridolfi

    As one who has browsed more bookstores than I care to remember and have worked in two I have this perspective. There are few serious readers and even fewer serious sellers. The profit margin is thin and so the seller will sell books that are pure fluff or sell gift items that are of little artistic or spiritual worth.

  • Leland Vickers

    Please clarify: “It is why I went ahead and sold my library to Gordon-Conwell Charlotte.” Does this mean you no longer have a personal library? Or, was it sold for delivery at a future time? My library is probably much smaller (only 1.5k – 2k volumes), but I am looking forward to retirement when I will have much more reading and studying time. Of course, theology and NT studies are a “hobby” for me, not a career.

  • Howard Merken

    I find amazon to be a tremendous place to buy books, including books that are very hard to find. I don’t buy digital books, for they have their own problems. Remember Orwell’s “1984″ disappearing off the electronic tablets due to some copyright claim? When someone decides to pull the plug, paper will survive. Yes, there is less flesh and blood when ordering on-line, but let’s not be like people who think that even book ownership is anti-communitarian, as we’re no longer dependent on the monks. I got a book on trigonometry from an amazon affiliate for 79 cents plus $3.99 S & H, which would have cost me at least $40 otherwise. It was “used”, but barely looked it. I’ve built up my math and science library for a fraction of the cost I would have otherwise, and my theological library is also no problem, thanks to amazon and Christian Book Distributors. As much as I wouldn’t mind living like they did 100 years ago, I don’t mind using a car instead of a horse, so sorry for those that invested in horse whips.

  • Louise Lewis

    Brilliant post! Wonderful to see the wide spread reach of Christian bookstore these days.