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Bookstores: Establishments and Sales
(Updated April 2019)

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 (Indicator V-17a). 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.[1]
  • 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 (Indicator V-17b). 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.
V-17a: Number of Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores and Employees, 1992–2016*

* Complete data not available for all years.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, County Business Patterns (American FactFinder, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk, accessed April 24, 2019). Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).

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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, 1992–2018
Source: U.S. Census Bureau (Monthly Retail Trade and Food Services Survey, “Time Series/Trend Charts,” https://www.census.gov/econ/currentdata/dbsearch?program=MRTSstartYear=1992endYear=2019categories=451211dataType=SMgeoLevel=USnotAdjusted=1submit=GET+DATAreleaseScheduleId=, accessed April 24, 2019). Data analyzed and presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org).
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../cmsData/xls/tableV-17b.xls../cmsData/ppt/V-17b.ppt../cmsData/pdf/V-17b.pdf

Endnotes

[1] See, for instance, Verne Kopytoff, “The Indie Bookstore Resurgence,” Fortune, September 20, 2013 (accessed August 22, 2016); and “Indie booksellers battle the giants”, The Business Monthly, April 16, 2019 (accessed April 23, 2019).
[2] Jim Milliot, “Print Book Sales Up Again in 2015,” Publishers Weekly, January 1, 2016 (accessed August 24, 2016).