In a post on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website in mid-December, Andrew W. Hait, a survey statistician/economist at the agency, gathered information from a variety of U.S. government sources to provide a snapshot of where physical bookstores stood in the late 2010s.

The general overview reviewed figures that are familiar to most industry members. Bookstore sales fell from a peak of $16.8 billion in 2007 to $9.12 billion in 2019, a decline of 45% (bookstore sales were $6.50 billion in 2020 because of the impact of the pandemic, but are on track to be close to 2019 levels in 2021). During that same span, the number of stores fell about 40%, from just under 10,000 to 6,045 in 2019.

The figures include data from chain bookstores, college stores, general independent bookstores, and religion bookstores that focus on the sale of new books. The steady erosion of stores and sales reflects the decline of the major chains, including the closing of Borders Group in 2011, then the country’s second-largest bookstore chain; widespread closings of Christian bookstores; and declines in the number of general independents in the face of the rapid growth of online sales.

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

The report does drill down to examine the inner workings of bookstores. Based on data from the 2017 Economic Census (a study conducted every five years), books made up 70.9% ($7.1 billion) of the total of $10 billion in bookstore sales in 2017. Among the products besides books that were sold in meaningful quantities at bookstores were:

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

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

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

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

Data drawn from the Economic Census also shows the competition bookstores now face in selling their primary product. In fact, book sales at outlets other than bookstores hit $8.3 billion in 2017, topping the $7.1 billion worth of books sold at bookstores that year. Of course, the major 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. Warehouse clubs have been a key outlet for book sales for years, and sales through that channel were $1.4 billion in 2017.

The report also took a brief look at the bookstore workforce. Stores with paid employees (as opposed to nonemployer bookstores) employed 61,068 workers in 2019 and had total payroll of $1.1 billion, which averages out to only $17,660 per year per employee.

Among other factoids, the report reveals that there was one bookstore per 54,299 people in the U.S. 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 bookstores’ ownership ranks. The government analysis of individually owned stores found that 84.5% had white owners.

The report also contains data on nonemployer bookstores, or stores run by self-employed people. There were 8,109 such outlets in 2018, with total sales of $339.8 million—an average of $41,901 per store.