Humanities Indicators
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Bookstores: Establishments and Sales
(Updated September 2016)

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 fell almost every year for which data are available from 1992 to 2014 (Indicator V-17a). The Census Bureau reported 13,136 bookstore establishments, consisting of small “independent” stores as well as larger chain stores, in 1992. As of 2014, the number of stores tallied in the Census Bureau survey had fallen 48%, to a low of 6,888. 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.[1]
  • The bookstore workforce increased by more than 50% from 1992 to 2008 but then declined substantially, with fewer people employed in these establishments in 2014 (92,620) than two decades earlier. The number of employees per establishment more than doubled over the 1992–2008 time period, before declining to 11.9 per store in 2013. In 2014, the number of employees per establishment increased to 13.4.
  • 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] Census Bureau data cannot be disaggregated by outlet type, but the Bureau does report that bookstore sales (which include books as well as other types of merchandise, such as calendars and games), rose almost 60% from 1992 to 2004—from $1.30 billion to $2.08 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars (Indicator V-17b). Over the next ten years, bookstore sales fell 45%, to $1.14 billion in 2014. In 2015, the ten-year trend of annual declines came to an end, as store sales increased 2% (to $1.17 billion).
  • Bookstores’ share of all retail sales hovered around 0.5% for the decade ending in 2004. In the subsequent decade, that share was halved, falling to 0.25% in 2015.
V-17a: Number of Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores and Employees, 1992–2014*

* Complete data not available for all years.

Source:American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators ( Data for 1992 to 2006 collected by U.S. Census Bureau (Statistics of U.S. Businesses, “SUSB Tables,”, accessed August 15, 2016). Data for 2007 to 2014 collected by U.S. Census Bureau (American FactFinder, “Geography Area Series: County Business Patterns,”|44814|448210|451211|4521|453210, accessed 9/15/2016).

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V-17b: Brick-and-Mortar Bookstore Sales in Billions of Inflation-Adjusted Dollars and as a Share of All Retail Sales, 1992–2015
Source: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators ( Data collected by U.S. Census Bureau (Monthly Retail Trade Survey, “Time Series/Trend Charts,”, accessed 8/23/2016).
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[1] See, for instance, Verne Kopytoff, “The Indie Bookstore Resurgence,” Fortune, September 20, 2013 (accessed August 22, 2016); and Zachary Karabell, “Why Indie Bookstores Are on the Rise Again,” Slate, September 9, 2014 (accessed August 22, 2016).
[2] Jim Milliot, “Print Book Sales Up Again in 2015,” Publishers Weekly, January 1, 2016 (accessed August 24, 2016).