Goodbye, Olsson's; Sorry I Helped Kill You
I knew this would happen, but I didn't think it would come so suddenly: After 36 years in the business, Olsson's Books and Records has closed its doors and filed for Chapter 7 liquidation.
For those of you who don't live in the D.C. area, a little background: As Marc Fisher writes in a blog post this morning, Olsson's stores were one of the minor landmarks that helped define neighborhoods.
As an undergrad at Georgetown University, I quickly got used to the short walk over to its cozy, brick-walled refuge on Wisconsin Avenue. After college, the Dupont Circle and Metro Center locations became frequent stops. And when an Olsson's opened up in Arlington's Courthouse neighborhood in the late '90s, I considered that a selling point for my new apartment's location.
Not long after that, I wrote a column extolling the virtues of stores within walking distance over those that require a drive or a delivery, and called out Olsson's as a prime example. For that piece, I asked store founder John Olsson how he could compete with the Web; he said that "We try to be convenient to people.... We hope that you'll forget to get on Amazon and you'll drop by the store."
strong>Bob Thompson's appreciation notes how Olsson's also did a lot of things that online stores didn't. It had author events all the time (I wondered when my family would ask how I obtained so many autographed copies). It set up listening stations where you could pop on headphones and check out an entire CD. It kept rolls of free wrapping paper by the exit to speed your gift procurement.
Any physical bookstore, not just this particular small chain, also enjoys some basic advantages over Web retailers. Spending time in one, flipping through random volumes, is far more enjoyable than clicking through Amazon's inventory; that site's "Search Inside the Book" feature is a weak substitute. And while music downloads provide a convenience and economy unavailable with CDs, electronic books remain an experiment for the publishing industry.
And yet: Olsson's, like other land-based booksellers, faced some fundamental disadvantages. Its prices, even with a frequent-buyer program that grew less rewarding in recent years, were high, and its selection was much more limited, even factoring in its ability to special-order a title. And while it's more pleasant to browse in a physical store (or library), it's much easier to search for and find a title on the Web than in a shop.
So despite my advocacy of the local shopping experience, and despite this chain doing the things I would have thought necessary to keep my business, I gradually let my wallet do the thinking. The tipping point must have been when I bookmarked Amazon's mobile page on my phone, allowing me to look up its lower prices right in Olsson's aisles.
My visits to these stores became less frequent, especially as they began to contract--with fewer titles on hand, I had less cause to stop in. And so the death spiral continued.
If you read the comments on DCist's post yesterday, you'll see other people voice the same thought: great place, but it'd been a while since I'd bought anything there. (The best place to leave your condolences, should you feel so inspired, is on Olsson's site.)
The death of Olsson's doesn't mean the doom of all real-world bookstores. Done right, one can be a civic highlight--last month, my wife and I made sure to leave part of an afternoon open to get lost in the stacks of Powell's in Portland, Oregon. Here in D.C., Kramerbooks and Politics and Prose, among others, carry on (though, alas, neither of them is close to where I work and live, and ignoring the Barnes and Noble near my home doesn't leave me with any particular indie-retail guilt).
But after being so wrong about the chances of this particular local bookstore, I don't think I want to give odds on the continued survival of others. Will you? Let's talk about this in the comments: Where do you do buy books? If it's online, what would it take for a local store to win back your business? If it's offline, how do you get around the cheaper prices and greater inventory of Web retailers?
October 1, 2008; 11:36 AM ET
Categories: The business we have chosen
Save & Share: Previous: Wal-Mart Latest Music Store to Deactivate DRM
Next: Computing For Cheapskates, Telecom For Tightwads
Posted by: Joe | October 1, 2008 12:29 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Columbia, MD | October 1, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: BW | October 1, 2008 1:34 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Steve | October 1, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Alexandria | October 1, 2008 2:52 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: cbr | October 1, 2008 4:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: hubcap | October 1, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Oregon | October 1, 2008 5:52 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jeff | October 1, 2008 6:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Marcus | October 1, 2008 6:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: BW | October 1, 2008 7:45 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Karl | October 2, 2008 4:48 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Brendan West | October 2, 2008 8:41 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: MIchael Smith | October 3, 2008 10:51 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Anne | October 3, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Rick | October 3, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Ted | October 6, 2008 12:04 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: David | October 6, 2008 4:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Rob | October 7, 2008 5:15 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.