January 23, 2022

Updated Data Analysis/Charts: “Bookstores: Establishments and Sales”

From the Humanities Indicators:

Alongside libraries, traditional “brick-and-mortar” bookstores have served as an important gateway to humanities content for the American public. In recent years, however, the U.S. Census Bureau has documented a precipitous decline in the number of traditional stores.

Findings and Trends

The number of bookstores at physical locations declined almost every year from 1992 to 2016. For 1992, the Census Bureau reported 13,136 bookstore establishments, consisting of small “independent” stores as well as larger chain stores. As of 2016, the number of stores tallied in the Census Bureau survey had fallen to less than half that figure, to an all-time low of 6,448. According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), the number of independent bookstores started to fall in the early 1990s due to competition from “superstores” (Borders and Barnes and Noble) and online booksellers (such as Amazon, which was established as an online bookstore in 1994). Since 2011, however, the media and the ABA have reported growth in the number of independent bookstores, even as the large chains have been consolidating stores and going out of business.

The bookstore workforce increased by more than 54% from 1992 to 2008.The number of employees then declined substantially, with 45% fewer people (83,319) working in these establishments in 2016 than eight years earlier.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores account for only a portion of all book sales, as online retailers, large department stores (such as Walmart), and book clubs sell substantial numbers of books.[2] The Census Bureau does not provide data on sales from these other outlets, but the Bureau does report that sales by bookstores specifically (these sales include books as well as other types of merchandise, such as calendars, games, and stationery), rose over 60% from 1992 to 2004—from $1.36 billion to $2.20 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars . Over the next 14 years, however, bookstore sales fell steadily (for a total of 53%) to $1.03 billion in 2018.

Bookstores’ share of all retail sales hovered around 0.4% from 1992 to 2010. In the subsequent decade, however, that share fell sharply, to a record low of 0.17% in 2018.

Direct to Additional Chart and Data Files

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.