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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?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 1, 2008; 11:36 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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Comments

there are no indie bookstores where I live in New Jersey. If I need it quick, or my daughter who is a voracious reader, wants a new classic book to read, then it is off to Barnes and Noble. On-line books come from Amazon or Christian Books

Posted by: Joe | October 1, 2008 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Let join in the legion of "haven't bought there recently" folks. A couple of years ago I stopped buying so many books once I realized I would only read them once. And they weigh a lot when you move, so you end up ditching many of them rather than keeping them. And since I live Howard County, I have access to a well run and well stocked library.

Also part of the appeal of Olssons was the staff recommendations. But I noticed that they we always recommending the same books. Good for occasional browing, but doesn't inspire regular visits to keep up with what's new and hip.

If you remember the old days of Amazon.com, they hired a bunch of literary types to do book recommendations. Their staff and critics picks were always interesting and out there. Then the suits came in and re-organized everything. Now the yearly staff and critics "best of" lists pretty much match up with the "best sellers" list.

Please, WP keep the book review section. It's one of the few decent places for book reviews. And try and get them to make an effort to include a variety of books, not just the mega-books.

Posted by: Columbia, MD | October 1, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse

I live in the boonies where there are *no* bookstores. The nearest bookstore (a B&N with a mediocre book selection and no music section) is a 30-minute drive away, in an area where I seldom have other business, and the nearest good bookstore (Borders) is even farther. Powell's online and Amazon have been my booksellers of choice for a while now, with an occasional purchase at the much better B&N in Bethesda when I happen to go there.

I love bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and I used to spend half my free time going from one to another in Harvard Square when I lived in the Boston area, years ago. But for me, it's a trek to go to any bookstore now, and I appreciate the convenience of having UPS or FedEx bring my choices right to my door. I miss the browsing experience, but it's not like I'm having trouble finding new books to read. I get recommendations from friends, make lists from book reviews, and occasionally the recommendations of the online booksellers. I always have more books to read than time to read them.

The bricks-and-mortar bookstore seems to be going the way of the record store. I'm sorry to see them go, but I have to admit I haven't been doing a great deal lately to help them stay in business.

Posted by: BW | October 1, 2008 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to put in a plug for Borders while they're still around. Their book prices aren't exactly cheap, but I've found that the coupons they give out through their Borders Rewards program (which is free to join) help make their pricing more competitive.

And I don't think walking through aisles of books and browsing will ever get old (it's cost-effectiveness is another story).

Posted by: Steve | October 1, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I use to buy all my books and most of my music from the Old Town store...but recently their inventory had been down right awful. NOthing was in stock, the used book section was filled with old textbooks from the 70s (or so it seemed) and attempting to order music through them took a month. I truly wanted to buy through them, but found I couldn't find the books or music I wanted and that makes me sad.

Posted by: Alexandria | October 1, 2008 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I don't buy books; I use my public library. Remember those?

Posted by: cbr | October 1, 2008 4:23 PM | Report abuse

I am not surprised at all. My experience was like Rob's. I buy a lot of books. I tried to support Olsson's, I really did. But around 2004/5, it got to where they weren't even regularly stocking titles that were reviewed in the NYT Book Review. I mean, that's ground zero for snooty book readers like me. After a half-dozen times stopping in and not finding the new title I was looking for, I got out of the habit of going to the store at all. I know I could ask them to order titles...but with the internet, I can do that myself. Slower, more trouble and more expensive is not a good business model.

I suppose the future of bookstores will be as cafes where you pick up stuff you ordered online, grab a coffee and hang out with your fellow nerds. Sounds like a plan.

Posted by: hubcap | October 1, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Powell's will never die. It is too beloved by Portlanders and all Oregonians. We read a lot. And if it ever did die, well, that would just be too depressing.

Posted by: Oregon | October 1, 2008 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Having lived within easy walking distance of Politics & Prose for about eight years, that was my primary source for books during that time. They aren't as cheap as Amazon, but the member sales helped, and I was usually happy to help out the local independent.

I was spoiled, though. I left DC about 3.5 years ago for the San Diego area, and there's nothing that even comes close to P&P as far as I can tell. These days everything is from Amazon (if I buy) or the local library. Though I do sometimes stop into P&P when I'm in DC, it's just not feasible to do most of my shopping there.

Posted by: Jeff | October 1, 2008 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Because Barnes & Noble hosts our monthly bookclub, I try to buy some books from them. However, it's hard to ignore Amazon's Market Place Seller's, where the same titles can be had for almost half the price.

Posted by: Marcus | October 1, 2008 6:33 PM | Report abuse

In the indie category, I love Quarter Moon Books & Gifts in Topsail Beach, NC. For a very small bookstore-cum-giftshop in a very small beach town, it has always had an impressively well-chosen mix of books, including biographies, serious nonfiction, and a good balance of serious fiction and middlebrow fiction with almost no fluff. They also have used hardcover and paperback books for sale. And excellent smoothies. Can't wait for August!

Posted by: BW | October 1, 2008 7:45 PM | Report abuse

I buy my books mostly from Amazon. I can also get cheap used books from Amazon which is something Olsonn's could not do.

Rob, for those who miss the intimacy and community of the bookstore, I suggest they re-explore the local branch of their library.

Posted by: Karl | October 2, 2008 4:48 AM | Report abuse

To echo BW (who was not me), here in Hanover, Pa., Barnes and Noble and Borders find it economically unfeasible to build a store. Sure there's a Waldenbooks in the mall, but my favorite is The Reader's Café here in town. Great coffee, great books in a converted church of sorts. Only problem is selection can't hold a candle to Amazon.com :-\

Posted by: Brendan West | October 2, 2008 8:41 AM | Report abuse

I read every day for hours. I found my book purchases were a place I had to cut due to the increase in overall cost of living. Our community Library which is rated #1 in the USA publishes a list of new books 2 months out. I reserve online and always have new books to read. The used book stores abound in a college town like columbus ohio and I make up the gaps with used books. I found a great bookstore by our place in Florida circle books in st armands circle with signed copys and author visits.

Posted by: MIchael Smith | October 3, 2008 10:51 AM | Report abuse

If you're ever in Iowa City, don't miss Prairie Lights. It's not just the books and the Java House coffee shop on the second floor. It's street theater, lots of authors reading their books, constant literary discussions, cranky fun. Stay over if necessary, but don't miss it.

Posted by: Anne | October 3, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I use the local library, but I also check out new good books at the local Barnes & Noble. If the book looks good, I go to the local indie bookstore and order it - they have on-line computerized listings of all books published and available, and the last book I ordered came four days after I put in the request. (Local libraries will have popular books, but they also have long hold queues.)

Posted by: Rick | October 3, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Well, this is off topic, but as a high schooler and college student during the late 70s to mid 80's, there were some great bookstores. Moonstone Bookcellars (cellar because they were in the basement under 21st Amendment at 2300 Penn Ave) had mystery and science fiction and there was Imagination Galleries on Sligo Ave in Silver Spring. Also, there was Barbarian Books on Grandview Avenue in Wheaton (I believe it is still around).
Of course, back then the bane of bookstores was Crown Books, founded by the Hafts. ("Books cost too much, that's why I found Crown Books" went Robert Haft before his dad cut him off).

Posted by: Ted | October 6, 2008 12:04 AM | Report abuse

It seems to me that only massive book buyers, i.e. Amazon, walmart, target, and B&N, can buy with enough clout to get the pricing they need to sell at a discounted price and still make money. The local bookseller has all but disappeared in this scenario.

But that doesn't satisfy the desire to browse, touch and feel, read the intros, etc. Like the car business, many of the auto dealers make their profits on selling used cars and service. New cars make some money, but not much.

Could it be possible to have a profitable bookstore if you have 1/4-1/3 new books and the rest used books? The mark-up on used books is much higher than what a small bookseller could get on a new book. The inventory turns aren't as high, but each sale will make more money.

Then you build in a cool cafe/coffee house. Those are definitely higher margin (I own one).

This could satisfy the people that want to browse and get lost for hours yet don't want to pay top dollar for a book.

I suppose it all has to do with how good you are at buying used inventory, the amount of cheap capital you have access to to build out the initial inventory, and how good you are at creating the "cool" atmosphere to attract your best buyers.

Meanwhile, you have the guy in the back that is putting all your inventory on Amazon Marketplace and Abe's Books (now owned by Amazon, ugh!). That will help with inventory turns.

Having said all that, I would think I would see more used bookstores if it were truly profitable. Or maybe we just need a new generation of booksellers.

Posted by: David | October 6, 2008 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Like Ted I remember Moonstone. Perhaps he and others will also remember Discount Books and Records near Dupont Circle owned by Bob Bialek. Olssons bought it after the death of its accountant by suicide.
I got my first full time job from the current buyer for books from England at Olsson's. He was the owner then of Savile Book shop on P St in G'town. That work was satisfying and challenging. Each day after school I worked handling the receipt and paperwork for special orders and regular stock. He pushed me to remember what books we had on shelves and where they were. Amazing what the mind can retain if you don't think it's not possible. It was also very interesting to see what the intelligence agencies were ordering
I was one of the carpenters who converted "Dockside" on Union St. in Alexandria into Olssons. In deed the steps so many have used could not have been made ready were it not for the use of a 6" power planer which I still own and use.
I am sad to read of this and hope that the many intelligent and helpful employees will be able to find satisfying work if they must leave.
I rec'd the following in an email. Even though it's about banks it applies, I think to bookstores such as Crown books, Amazon et al too.
6. IF IT'S TOO BIG TO FAIL, THEN THAT MEANS IT'S TOO BIG TO EXIST. Allowing the creation of these mega-mergers and not enforcing the monopoly and anti-trust laws has allowed a number of financial institutions and corporations to become so large, the very thought of their collapse means an even bigger collapse across the entire economy. No one or two companies should have this kind of power. The so-called "economic Pearl Harbor" can't happen when you have hundreds -- thousands -- of institutions where people have their money. When you have a dozen auto companies, if one goes belly-up, we don't face a national disaster. If you have three separately-owned daily newspapers in your town, then one media company can't call all the shots (I know... What am I thinking?! Who reads a paper anymore? Sure glad all those mergers and buyouts left us with a strong and free press!). Laws must be enacted to prevent companies from being so large and dominant that with one slingshot to the eye, the giant falls and dies. And no institution should be allowed to set up money schemes that no one can understand. If you can't explain it in two sentences, you shouldn't be taking anyone's money.

Posted by: Rob | October 7, 2008 5:15 AM | Report abuse

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