Preliminary estimates released on February 12 by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that bookstore sales rose 2.5% in 2015 over 2014, the first annual increase since 2007. Bricks-and-mortar bookstore sales were down 36% in 2014 from their 2007 peak, due to the Great Recession, the surge in e-book sales, and the jump in online retailing. (The census figures include revenue from all retailers “primarily engaged” in selling new books which includes outlets other than indie and chain stores.) During that same period, the number of chain and independent bookstores—as measured by outlets operated by Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders and ABA member stores—fell by 18%.
The 2015 turnaround in bookstore sales was due in part to the growing number of indie stores operating in the U.S. since the collapse of Borders in 2011. Borders closed more than 600 stores when it went bankrupt that year, and total sales in the bookstore sector fell 10.1% in 2011, compared to the previous year. ABA membership rose to 1,900 locations in 2012, up from 1,823 in the prior year, leading to a 2.2% increase of the combined number of chain and independent bookstores over 2011. Even with that increase, however, year-over-year bookstore sales dropped another 12.1% in 2012.
As e-book sales began to cool, the decline in sales at physical bookstores began to slow down in 2013, while the number of new bookstores continued to post low single-digit increases; the 4.4% increase in outlets in 2015 was the biggest gain since 2006, if not earlier. Since the demise of Borders, independent bookstores have made up a significantly larger share of the number of bookstores in the U.S. The year before Borders closed, ABA stores accounted for 51% of bookstores, a share that rose to 71% in 2015. Indie stores, of course, don’t account for nearly that percentage of bookstore sales, but in many communities they are the only retailer where consumers have access to a wide range of titles. Since Borders closed, Barnes & Noble’s store count has fallen from 705 outlets to 647, whereas the number of Books-A-Million outlets rose from 231 in 2010 to 256 in 2015, mainly due to the 43 Borders leases it took over as the bankruptcy auction was winding down.
The resurgence in the fortunes of independent booksellers has been widely noted, particularly at this year’s Winter Institute. During that conference, ABA CEO Oren Teicher reported that sales from more than 500 independent bookstores rose 10% in 2015 over 2014 to more than $500 million. “Independent bookstores once again fulfilled their mission to put the right book in the hands of readers and book buyers while growing their businesses in what obviously remains a challenging environment,” he said.
Bookstores Sales, Store Counts 2006–2015
($ in millions)
* combination of barnes & noble, books-a-million, borders, and aba membership locations. aba locations for 2006–2008 are estimates, due to database and dataset changes.