As hard as it may be to believe now, there was a time not long ago when a trip to the mall could mean encountering one or even two bookstores. Borders, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks—these stores provided the ability to browse titles in a social setting, an increasingly difficult activity in today’s realm of dwindling storefronts.
Bookstore locations have been trending upward in recent months, a possible consequence of people looking for social outlets after the peak of the coronavirus pandemic and because social media is igniting (or reigniting) a love of reading. Instead of closing hundreds of stores as planned, Barnes & Noble plans to add up to 25 locations in 2022.
Mall storefronts, meanwhile, are being scooped up by independent booksellers, who have inventories that fit in comfortably with the smaller footprints of the shops: 172 independent bookstores opened in 2021, with some opting to get situated inside of a mall.
That doesn’t mean small shops can’t go big. Both Schuler Books in Michigan and Powell’s Books in Oregon have anchor stores measuring 25,000 to 33,000 square feet in size—a massive presence usually reserved for chain giants. Others have tried stepping away from the sterile steel-and-glass aesthetic of mall shops, offering the warmer wood tones and reading-chair-and-lamp lighting that give bookstores a cozier feel. For a younger generation desperate for a social connection and eager to check out a title promoted on TikTok, bookstores offer a social hub—not to mention tens of thousands of conversation starters.
While the outlook for shopping malls has been dire for some time, many are opting to get creative with anchor stores that have been vacated by department store chains, opening fitness centers, restaurants, and even casinos. If it works, bookstores could be one of the beneficiaries.
Like all businesses, bookstores large and small have an unpredictable future. But simply assuming Amazon will swallow up physical locations may be presumptuous. For readers, a book in the hand is worth a lot.