The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

There used to be a bookstore. And it’s all my fault.

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Effect of frictionless online shopping on my book and CD transactions over time

“And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy I’d never seen
And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here”

–Joe Raposo, “There Used to Be a Ballpark”

Spring training 2013 is well under way, having started almost exactly in sync with the Ricketts family’s campaign to make some changes to a Chicago ballpark that is not yet being sung about in the past tense. But it’s not the ghostly image of Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds or the original Yankee Stadium, nor the voice of Frank Sinatra, that is summoning up that song today.

No, it’s the fact that on a corner in Deerfield, Illinois, one that exactly 20 years boasted a Super Crown Books, a Barnes & Noble, and a Borders Books & Music — the corner of Waukegan and Lake-Cook Roads — the last of the three has been transformed into a glittering new medical office building for North Shore University Health Systems. That would be the closed Borders; one of the first few dozen outposts of that late, lamented chain, it was shuttered in 2011.

(“Doctors without Borders,” read the Crain’s headline when the deal was made a year ago.)

America appeared to be in the middle of a book-browsing-and-buying boom in the early ’90s. “Nationally, more than 100 book superstores–those carrying 75,000 titles or more–have opened in the last few years,” Colin McMahon wrote in the Tribune in November 1992. “In the Chicago area, more than a dozen such stores have just opened or are about to,” including the three within a mile of my house in 17,500-population Deerfield. Sales were growing at 7% a year and sales of juvenile books, “‘our annuity’ according to one executive,” were surging 13% annually.

And, Colin reported, “customers at superstores generally take twice as long shopping and spend twice as much money as at regular bookstores, said Steve Riggio, executive vice president of Barnes & Noble.”

Hmmm. Interesting, isn’t it, that Riggio’s brother Leonard (chairman of B&N) said Monday he may want to buy the retail portion of the company’s business and leave the Nook to, er, its own devices. Sales were down 10% in the most recent quarter, but profits were up 7.3% because B&N has been doing a good job of staying out of the path of the oncoming train. You know, the one that says “Amazon” on the cowcatcher.

I noticed that train while on another one on May 16, 1996. That was the day that my commuting perusal of the Wall Street Journal started with a Page One story about one of the Internet’s “underground sensations,” something called Amazon.com. “[F]ew executives in the tweedy book-publishing business know it exists,” wrote the author, despite its $5 million in annual sales, “better than most Barnes & Noble Inc. superstores.”

Less than two months later, I gave this river of reading a try, buying “A Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe” and W.P. Kinsella’s “Go the Distance” on July 3 for a total of $32.71. I had discovered the long tail, and I don’t mean the one of the European Magpie.

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Commuter mugs sent to Amazon customers like me, 1996 and 1997.

I made only two more Amazon orders that year — enough for me to find a gift Amazon.com commuter coffee mug in my mailbox at Christmas, but not enough to keep me out of bookstores. All things being equal, bricks-and-mortar was destined to stay comfortably in the lead with me. After all, it was just a mile down the road to Borders and its accessible, if not endless, supply of books and compact discs.

But starting in February, 2005, all things were no longer equal. That was the dawn of Amazon Prime — and of the gathering twilight of my Bookstore Years. If there were ever any doubt that convenience is a determining factor in media consumption, it was quickly dispelled by the irresistible combination of seemingly free shipping, “earth’s biggest selection,” and two-day delivery. My comprehensive data goes back only to 1999, but the chart above — adjusted to include only book and CD purchases, no groceries or gadgets — shows the inexorable transaction trend.

For shame: If I weren’t darkening my local Borders’ double doors, who else was going to?

And so it was that I, and the rest of the North Shore, pretty much stopped going to bookstores for our health. Magazines will soon be available again at 49 S. Waukegan Rd., but they will probably be dated — oh, I don’t know.  How about 1993?

North Shore University Health System, Deerfield

Doctors without Borders.

(Editor’s note: There actually are still some laden bookshelves at the intersection, but just temporarily. In the former Barnes & Noble, which was succeeded by an Amlings Flowerland when B&N moved to the middle of town a while ago, the Deerfield Public Library has taken up residence during a renovation. But after that, the rest will again be silence.)

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  • Owen Youngman says:

    Nicely put. My life is certainly easier; much of my online shopping results in next-day delivery given that I’m in Chicago, and I do value the individual effects of the long tail. I need to think a little harder about whether there is a way to articulate my general sense of related loss, which this post does not at all. Thanks for the comments. O

    March 2, 2013 at 8:10 am
  • Jack Lail says:

    Fascinating chart.

    Amazon Prime certainly was the game changer for an already successful business.

    But along the way, Amazon also figured out at many levels how to deliver great service and a great shopping experience.

    Do we really look wistfully look back on a day when we paid higher prices, had a fraction of the selection and less convenience?

    I find few mourning the loss of the corner Circuit City. I shopped there because I had too. Am I sad Best Buy is Amazon’s showroom? Nope.

    And the online vs. corner store decision often wasn’t even the choice for people in small cities and rural areas. Barnes & Noble wasn’t there.

    My book choice today can be printed, digital or audible.

    My life is better off as a result of e-commerce. These are the good old days at the ballpark. Time for a hotdog, some peanuts and a beer.

    March 2, 2013 at 4:40 am

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