A regrettable clearance sale


Losing a bookstore is an odd paradox. On the one hand, the prices are slashed so that the store’s inventory can be moved quickly. But on the other hand, the store goes away once the sale is over. And the world needs more bookstores, not less.

Such was my dilemma today when I visited Powell’s bookstore on Chicago’s North side. It’s closing in June, citing an economic climate that isn’t too kind to booksellers. I had been to Powell’s a few times through the years, and its size alone seemed to augur for a long-term presence on Lincoln Avenue. But in the end, that’s one of the factors that did them in.

I felt a sense of sadness as I wandered through the store this afternoon. I picked up four books for a total of $10, and the titles all look like they will be interesting (a Shakespeare biography, two books about Abraham Lincoln, and Jonathan Eig’s Get Capone, if anyone’s interested). I always appreciate cheap reads, and today’s visit did not disappoint. But it also came with a steep price.

Had I been more inclined to pay full price for these books a few months ago, I doubt that alone would have made a difference in the store’s fortunes. But if thousands of others had taken this same approach, then perhaps the store’s sales would have been robust enough to avoid closure. And it’s too late now, unfortunately.

Bookstores like Powell’s have been disappearing for some time now. I love bookstores and what they represent, but I fear their dwindling numbers also says something about our society. Paying full price is less desirable to readers than paying a reduced price, which in turn is less desirable than free. For booksellers and artists of every stripe, free and reduced prices are difficult business models to sustain.

I saw a sign on the wall of the store today that made me stop for a moment. It was a letter written by schoolchildren, and it included the line “Thank you for the books.” And I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. Thank you for the books, Powell’s.

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