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Growth in ABA Membership Signals Modest Uptick in Independent Bookselling

As the publishing industry gathers in New York to celebrate itself at BookExpo America, it’s a case of good news-bad news for fans of physical bookstores.

The good news: ABA membership has increased for the fourth year in a row, up 65 members to 1,632, according to an AP story that declares “independent bookselling has become a growth industry.” The AP quotes ABA CEO Oren Teicher as attributing the rise in part to the “buy local” movement, independents’ increasing comfort with technology and a younger generation’s interest in bookselling.

“There was a time when people were ready to retire and couldn’t sell their stores, so they closed them,'” Teicher says. “The fact that these stores are now remaining bodes well for the future.”

The bad news: The increase in independents doesn’t come close to making up for the loss of stores caused by the demise of Borders and the shrinking of Barnes & Noble.  Borders, which peaked at 1,249 stores in 2003, closed it’s remaining 399 locations in 2011.  Barnes and Noble, has been getting smaller since 2008, when it had 726 stores, and plans to continue contracting by about 20 locations a year.

Teicher and others see a reversal from the peak days of Barnes & Noble and Borders, when nonstop superstore expansion often forced out the smaller stores. Now, the problem has shifted from saturated neighborhoods to underserved neighborhoods. Industry analyst Mike Shatzkin cites not just the fall of Borders, but also the “sharp reduction in shelf space for books at B&N.” Shatzkin says demand for physical books is declining, but that physical stores have been shrinking even faster.

There’s much room for improvement, but an increasing numbers of brick-and-mortar bookstores is a reason to cheer as BEA opens in New York tomorrow.