Nearly 40% of Russia's book sales in 2009 came from independent bookstores. Bookshop chains contributed around 20%, and only 8% were transacted online. The dependence on bricks-and-mortar outlets remains unassailable even though bookstores outside of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some other major cities (such as Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk) are poorly stocked.

That is due in part to high restocking costs when great distances and large transportation bills are involved. And that translates into different prices for the same book: cheaper in Moscow but dearer in the outer regions (where wages and disposable income are much lower). Books are still priced quite low by global standards. But just like anywhere (and everything) else, book prices have risen in recent times, from an average of 110 rubles ($3.80) in 2005 to 190 rubles ($6.60) in 2010.

Currently, the total number of retail outlets is barely 30% of those existing during Soviet times. The collapse of the centralized distribution system had much to do with the dwindling number of stores. Nowadays, big publishing houses that also have their fingers in the retail pie often have a sophisticated logistics division to transport titles to retail outlets near and far. For smaller publishers, tagging along with their big counterparts' logistics services and bookstores makes perfect sense in cost-conscious times.

As a rule, bookstores do not import directly from overseas publishers, relying instead on distributors to get the books they want so as to avoid dealing with shipping, customs clearance, and taxation. Presently, a value-added tax of 18% is imposed on imports of trade books, CDs, and DVDs, and 10% on "educational" titles (the loose definition often works to the advantage of importers).

In general, Russians are serious (and rather conservative) readers. Parents traditionally build their own libraries and hand them down the generations. TV, the Internet, and games have considerably less impact than in the U.S. or U.K. Schools continue to emphasize literature, and parents buy lots of classics, original or translated. On average, every Russian buys around five books per year. Still, publishers bemoan the decline in reading.

As to where to buy books, residents and visitors alike have plenty of choices—from the "book supermarkets" to "mobile book vans" that offer cheaply priced (but an extremely limited range of) current bestsellers. Just 10 minutes' walk from Red Square, for instance, one finds Biblio-Globus, one of the biggest players in the Russian retail sector. Founded in 1957, it is one of Europe's biggest bookstores. The huge three-level building offers books, CDs, DVDs, stationery items, and even an antique section for first or limited editions, stamps, coins, postcards. It hosts a variety of book clubs, including Klio (for history lovers), Young Philosophers, and Foreign Language Lovers.

For a more in-depth look at the retail sector, PW heads over to Moscow's Dom Knigi ("House of Books"). "The last three years saw a significant increase in demand for children's books, while in-store purchases of professional titles and literature showed a definite drop," says commercial director Natalia Yumasheva. "For the latter category, there is a swing toward online orders—a service that we also provide in addition to our bricks-and-mortar operation. But when it comes to titles for their children, parents still insist on seeing the book firsthand prior to purchase." Yumasheva works from the chain's 27,000-square-meter flagship store (with 250,000 titles and 40,000 stationery items) at Noyvi Arbat, the city's main shopping strip.

Still state-owned, the chain has 42 stores in Moscow and is becoming much more consumer-driven in recent years. "Muscovites are very keen to learn English, and for the past 10 years Raymond Murphy's grammar books from Cambridge University Press, for instance, are very popular," Yumasheva says. "English language books—specifically travel books and fiction—are taking up more space on our shelves. So too are books on architecture, design, and art." During PW's visit in December, the store's bestsellers were Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, Larsson's Millennium trilogy, Meyer's Twilight series, Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary—driven largely by the arrival of their screen adaptations. "We may be quite a distance away, but we are not immune to U.S. influence in terms of blockbusters."

Yumasheva also notes that there are few local authors writing for 10- to 15-year-olds, which requires publishers to import or translate titles for these readers. "Meanwhile, the lack of information on published and upcoming titles—or launch schedules—is a major issue. Such a database would help us better plan our promotional campaigns and allocate adequate space to highlight the new titles. That in turn would help push sales and make everybody—us, publisher, and author—happy." Still, sales at this store come to around 25 million copies per annum.

Eight hundred kilometers away, at Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, Dom Knigi (no connection to the Moscow chain of the same name) was established in 1919, making it the first bookshop during Soviet times. It is still owned by the St. Petersburg municipal government. Visitors have access to 125,000 titles, 20% of which are fiction and literature. Housed in the century-old Singer Building (complete with a covered courtyard and allegorical sculptures), the store boasts 20,000 visitors a day and holds various author signings and presentations. "Our store is not just a place for people to buy books. It is a cultural meeting point where content creators and buyers interact and exchange ideas," says general director Liubov Paskhina.

Here, too, the demand for English language titles has risen significantly. In fact, Paskhina and commercial director Irina Magracheva imported 1,000 copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows directly from the U.K. publisher when the English edition was launched. "There are plenty of English schools in St. Petersburg, and children want to read in English, especially global bestsellers like Potter," adds Paskhina, who dreams of having a bookstore like the seven-story Shanghai Book City, where there is space to display each book face out. "The major challenge to any bookstore is the Internet. The younger generation prefers to download books and read on iPads or other e-book devices. How the publishing industry deals with the Internet and e-books will determine the direction we take in the near future."

A few blocks away, general director Denis Kotov of Bookvoed ("Alphabet Eater") is changing the traditional bookstore concept into "a park of culture and reading." (And who could have imagined this coming from someone who started his bookselling career with a book van about a dozen years ago?) "I want Bookvoed to be the ‘third place'—that space between the house and the office—for book and culture lovers." The three-level store, complete with ramps for wheelchair access, boasts specially commissioned piped-in music ("representing diverse world cultures"), an art school ("for adults to learn how to paint"), multiple computer kiosks ("to help pinpoint book locations"), and a coffee bar.

"We have large shops, or supermarkets, smaller ones, and a book club. There is also the online store, where visitors have exceeded 20,000 per week," says Kotov, whose team organizes about 150 cultural events every month. "Growth is expected to hit 20% this year. Our focus is on further strengthening our brand. Based on our surveys, 65% of respondents have spontaneous knowledge of Bookvoed, of which 90% have visited at least one Bookvoed outlet." Since its first store opened in 2000, Bookvoed has expanded at a frenetic pace: it now has 50 outlets, 42 in St. Petersburg alone. Part of the Novy Knizhny Bukvoed bookstore chain—currently the largest in Russia and the CIS with 200 stores—it is managed by Eksmo, which owns 60% of the business.

Besides those mentioned above, there are Top Kniga, based in Novosibirsk; Bukva, owned by AST; and Molodaya Gvardiya, Moskva, and Respublica among the more popular and better-stocked stores. The challenge for these companies—and those operating in any corner of the globe—is to survive the economic downturn and find a way to deal with the declining reading habit and emerging e-book market.