Almost every week a web page announces the closure of another bookstore. This week we have Queen Anne in Seattle and Capital Comics in Raleigh, NC among others. The flood of closures appears to have been stemmed somewhat by the closing of Borders across the country, an event that provided a lifeline for the indies.

It is worth putting the closures of recent years into some sort of historical perspective. Looking back at the Orion Cheney’s Economic survey of the book industry, 1930-1931 provides some interesting reading in this regard. The chart below illustrates one set of data from the report. The maps show the number of bookstores in each state (left map) and the number of bookstores per 100,000 people in each state (right map), based on data provided by the National Association of Book Publishers. The report records a time when, according to Cheney, America was in the midst of economic crisis, education was limited, “a large proportion of the population of the population is functionally illiterate as far as book reading is concerned, and “new methods of spending leisure, such as the radio, motion pictures and the automobile … are a factor in preventing newer generations from becoming readers”. According to Cheney’s report, there were 4053 book outlets worthy of the name at the time, including 1557 grade “A” outlets and 2496 smaller outlets like drug stores and gift shops. Two-thirds of the counties in the USA had no bookstore within their borders; likewise 32% of the urban population  and 51% of the rural lived without easy access.

The data comes from book publishers and describes bookstores as distribution points for their products. Used-book stores are not included in the data.

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