When Barnes & Noble agreed to a one-year lease extension for its Union Station store last week, it wasn’t so much a reprieve for local lovers of books as it was for lovers of bookstores.
The chain had announced earlier in the week that it would close the store by year’s end — which to many in the retail trade did not come as a surprise. Rival Borders had already closed its stores, after that chain was forced to liquidate in the summer of 2011.
And Barnes & Noble had shuttered a store on M Street in Georgetown at the end of last year. It seemed that the Union Station store’s number had simply come up.
Instead Barnes & Noble reversed course and agreed to the extension, giving bookstore enthusiasts reason to be optimistic. And perhaps for good reason.
There is no doubt that sales of e-books are dramatically eating away at the market for traditional books, having grown from 6.3 percent of consumer-book revenue in 2010 to 14.8 percent last year, according to survey data from BookStats, a venture of two publishing groups.
But local outfits such as Politics & Prose in the District, and One More Page in Arlington, are reinventing the independent bookstore experience, and now that Borders is gone and Barnes & Noble has slimmed down, retail experts and brokers say the industry may be reaching some semblance of stability.
Almost two years ago, Barnes & Noble’s lease for one of its larger local stores, at Fair Lakes Promenade in Fairfax, was expiring. Borders was in the midst of collapsing and the landlord’s representative, Jim Farrell, figured Barnes & Noble would want to shrink the 24,500-square-foot location.
“I expected to hear from Barnes & Noble that their store really needs to be 15,000 square feet,” said Farrell, of Rappaport Retail Brokerage, in McLean. But Barnes & Noble kept its original square footage, telling Farrell that it wanted to retain space for its children’s section, cafe and lounge areas.
“There’s going to be room for some book stores to be around, but the question for brick-and-mortar retailers, when they’re fighting against online [sales], is how many are there going to be in the region?” said Bill Miller, principal at Miller Walker Retail Real Estate.
Miller said locations in airports, train stations and college campuses are most likely to persevere. Otherwise, stores will need to update their formats to cater to shoppers who are likely to carry an e-reader or tablet computer into the store when they arrive and may be less interested in a place to buy a printed book as a place to read an e-book.
“The older generation has a warm and fuzzy feeling about libraries, and I think that’s why you saw Barnes & Noble build a lot of their stores with that library-type feeling,” Miller said. But younger shoppers never spent time picking through the stacks at libraries, Miller added. “Perhaps there’s a way that bookstores can transform themselves into something that’s more relevant,” he said.
Local outfits such as Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in Dupont Circle and Busboys & Poets have demonstrated successful strategies, offering book sections that serve in part as decor and ambiance for coffee, restaurant and event business.
In a few years, sellers of books increasingly may not be bookstores.
“The good ones … will figure out a way to not only give people the sensation of putting a tactile book in their hands, but also figure out a way to serve the folks who want to download their books,” Farrell said.