Book World Chain Closing Could Mean More Indies Opening

Book World, a regional, family-run chain of bookstores founded in 1976, is closing all 45 of its locations. But the fate of Book World is not the fate of independent bookstores, which are on the rise.

by Carrie Obry

As has been reported by Publishers Weekly and Book World's website, all Book World locations are closing across the upper Midwest. While it's a blow to these communities that the bookstores they have relied on for so many years are closing, the loss of this many stores is also an opportunity. Book World owned all of its buildings and fixtures, and everything is up for sale. Along with each sale comes knowledge of Book World's top-earning locations, insight into each store's finances, and also a built-in customer base. ​At the time of posting this article, two locations have been sold, and two are in negotiation. 

Of prime importance to the sale of these locations is the fact that independent bookstores, much unlike chains, are experiencing a renaissance while simultaneously embracing the digital age. Between 2009 and 2015, the American Booksellers Association reported a 35 percent growth in the number of independent bookstores, from 1,651 to 2,227. Independent bookstores are “thriving in ways that no one really expected,” says Ryan Raffaelli of Harvard Business School, who studies how industries faced with huge technological change reinvent themselves. “What makes these bookstores so unique is they understand the local community they’re operating in in ways that are quite different than the large mass retailers.”

History will say that Book World was the victim of the rise of e-commerce and the convenience of buying books online, and that their locations in struggling shopping malls were the anchor that drew them under. But these statements are only partially true. Much more has to be said about Book World's sales model to truly understand the forces at play, and why they are closing while independent bookstores numbers are increasing. 

Centrally run out of Appleton, Wisconsin, Book World didn't get involved in the book industry the way individual independent booksellers do, preferring to skip trade shows and lucrative bookseller/publisher relationship-building in favor of their specific regional approach. Individual store managers had limited buying power, leading to a feeling of sameness across all stores. Managers booked author events if they wanted, but they drew only from personal network, which rarely resulted in big names, and no one at Book World tapped into popular author touring schedules by partnering with publishers' marketing plans. Because it is hard to advertise in 45 markets, they often skipped it altogether (except when social media rose to prominence, which they used frequently). And all Book Worlds had that same mall-type feel, even when they were located on Main Street.

Book World was founded in 1976, and what was successful by its early standards of operation (45 or so family-run bookstores across 7 states is a major achievement) isn't as relevant to today's book buyers, who have grown to expect bookstores to bring them what Book World by and large didn't—that home-away-from-home feeling, with cozy places to sit, a calendar of inspiring events, cafes, a feeling of discovery, and the palpable sense that the store is rooted in the local community. When this magical combination is achieved, bookstores thrive.

​“Chains are difficult to maintain because everything happens from the top down," said Mark Dupont, Book World's senior vice president. "You can’t cultivate the local community and clientele the same way you can with a single store who has a committed owner and is passionate about their business.”

What's most telling is that Dupont himself is toying with the idea of opening an independent bookstore of his own. "There’s so many great books being published, and people still want to go an buy them in a bookstore.”