Are brick-and-mortar bookstores doomed? People have been predicting the downfall of physical bookstores for quite some time, but with many stores vanishing and shelf selections getting much worse, the warnings have gotten more dire lately.

Borders is shuttering 182 of its smaller Waldenbooks outlets, while leaving 130 of them open. And Barnes & Noble is similarly closing down all but 50 of its B. Dalton stores. The move leaves the town of Laredo, TX as the nation's largest town without a bookstore. In an NPR piece on the closures, Clive Warner with Citria Publishing sounds a dire note:

DAVIES: The Liverpool native runs a small science fiction publishing house. He says the forecast is grim for many brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Mr. WARNER: Oh, they're finished. Everything's going online.

But it's not that simple for a lot of people, points out science blogger Suzanne E. Franks, whose local Borders store is also closing down:

Advertisement

Everything's going online. That's IF you have a line to go on. No internet access? Well, just go to your local library...oh, wait, I forgot. Our local governments are strapped for cash these days and we might just have to shut the libraries down. So sorry. But hey, if you can't afford wi-fi, what the hell are you doing buying books anyway? You should be borrowing them from the... ah, never mind.

But say you still have a Borders or Barnes & Noble near your home. That still doesn't mean you're going to be able to get the smart, challenging science-fiction books you crave — because selections are getting worse and worse. Dave Nalle with Blogcritics recently wrote about going to his local Borders to look for the new Mike Resnick space opera, from Pyr Books, only to find it wasn't on the shelves because Borders wasn't stocking it. He looked around, and realized the store's selection of science-fiction books in general was atrocious:

As I wandered the stacks in dismay I noticed some changes at my local Borders. First off, there were far fewer actual books on the shelves. They've expanded the space for non-book products and reduced the space for actual books. Then there's a problem with what's actually on the shelves. Apparently there's no room for Flagship because the shelves are full-up with supernatural themed romance novels most of which verge on being pornographic, marketed not only under romance but in every other section of the bookstore, including taking up about half the shelf-space in the Science Fiction and Horror sections.

Of course, supernatural romances are dominating the shelves because they're popular. But also, midlist science-fiction authors just aren't getting the shelf space they used to, and diversity is being sacrificed. Adds Nalle:

Advertisement

Clearly Internet shopping also plays a role in this. Publishers aren't working quite as hard to sell second-tier writers to the bookstores when they know they can sell to the established fan base through online outlets. Some publishers like Tor and Baen have become really masterful at this, building online communities and essentially mentoring new writers in the process.

Of course, some of us are still lucky enough to have specialty science-fiction bookshops in our towns, like Pandemonium in Cambridge, MA, Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, Borderlands here in San Francisco, or Uncle Hugo's in Minneapolis. And maybe the real take-away message of all this is, if the giant chains are abandoning you or refusing to stock the books you love, don't run to Amazon — support independent science-fiction bookstores instead. They'll help keep the genre as a whole much healthier.

Images by Peter Hilton and Nancy Baym on Flickr.