As I wrote a few weeks ago, independent booksellers are facing some big challenges, chiefly the aggressive expansion of big retail bookstores. But recently, I’ve talked to several people who have predicted to me that while such expansions make money now (mostly by driving up stock prices), the prospects aren’t good over the long haul.
Why? Nationally, as I have written before, the market for readers -- while very good along the Front Range generally -- is fairly stable. That is, just because there are a lot more places to buy books doesn’t mean more people are buying books. It just means that more businesses are competing for the same number of sales.
In some respects, the consumer benefits by this competition. The discounts go up. But again, only the larger stores can consistently afford to operate with less of a profit margin -- and that’s only if they can also be confident of a high volume of sales AND a certain narrowing of what’s offered.
But if the market isn’t all that good for expansion of bookstores, why are there so many new bookstores? According to a local appraiser, “There’s too much capital.” Money is cheap.
I don’t pretend to be either an economist or a fortuneteller. As a librarian, I’m mostly pretty happy to see more books in the area. While I have a preference for the independents, and have some real concerns about their survival, I recognize that places like Borders or Barnes and Noble’s not only offer some great bargains, they can provide local versions of the “great good place” -- interesting spots to hang out and talk to people. Such places tend to knit a community together.
Likewise, the bookstores that also offer traditional library-type events -- children’s story times, book clubs, and the like -- generally raise the appreciation of literacy in a community. That’s all to the good.
But I recently ran across an article about long-lived companies, and why they last. (It also pointed out that long-lived companies tend to outperform America’s stock market by a factor or 15 since 1926.) According to the article (appearing in the May 10, 1997 issue of the Economist), long-lived companies share four traits:
-financial conservatism. They rarely borrowed money. Instead, they saved or invested it, then paid cash.
-sensitivity to the world around them. When the business or social climate changed, they changed, too.
-cohesion. Members of the companies saw themselves as belonging to an internal community with a history and a core philosophy, even a sense of mission.
-tolerance. This is the delicate balancing act. There needs to be a sense of corporate identity -- but there must also be some acceptance of divergent behavior within the company. A strict corporate hierarchy tends to stifle sensitivity, for instance.
The article begins, “For most firms, life is nasty, brutish and short. The life expectancy of a typical multinational is between 40 and 50 years, which means that of all the companies now featured in America’s Fortune 500, about one-third will have merged, been broken up or gone bust by 2010.” That’s not a pretty picture.
While I like to think the Douglas Public Library District works hard to fit this profile of a long-lived company, the truth is that we are sheltered from many business pressures. Even if every bookstores in the county does overextend itself, then go bust, the library will still be here. On the other hand, we won’t be making the sort of profits or personal fortunes of a company like Microsoft.
It just might be that such public institutions as the public library serve as something of a necessary counter-weight to the “nasty, brutish and short” existence of too many business ventures. We provide some continuity and stability in times of upheaval.
And it might be too, that more businesses need to adopt a longer perspective.