With a number of science fiction authors like Tobias Buckell complaining of late about their books being "skipped," Andrew Wheeler has a long post both explaining the situation and stating why chain book stores are "vastly better than the bulk of the existing independent bookstores" they replaced. Here's the paragraph that will probably get up a lot of people's noses:
One thing is indeed true: about eighteen years ago, there were 7,500 independent bookstores; now there are 1700. Sure, some good stores closed. But the rosy-colored view of the wonderful lost indy bookstore, land of miracles, where enlightened, Buddha-esque bookmen and -women sold only the finest of literature to a happy and contented audience is pure bunk. Most of those vanished stores were too small, undercapitalized, badly run marginal businesses run by cranks. They went out of business because they were bad at business, lacking any point-of-sale systems or serious inventory tracking at all. If they didn't return all that many books, it was because they had no idea what they had or where it was. Oh, and most of them -- as those of us who remember those days without the gauzy light of nostalgia -- were actively hostile to science fiction and fantasy. (Remember? This is the era when SF sold mostly in paperback, through entirely different channels, or in small hardcover editions to libraries. Those supposed wondrous independent stores of yore didn't carry SFF.) The independent stores still open are probably 90% of the well-managed independent bookstores that ever existed; there's a serious selection bias in looking at what's still around and extrapolating that back to all of the stores that didn't survive -- most of them didn't survive for a reason.
I'm a fan of independent bookstores and shop at them quite often, but I can also see where Wheeler is coming from. Growing up in central Alabama during the 70s and 80s, there were no good independent bookstores in the area that stocked quality science fiction or fantasy. Only with the arrival of the big chain stores did central Alabama suddenly have access to the same great books that were taken for granted in the big cities.
That said, the best bookstores in the country tend to be independent bookstores. My favorites include Dreamhaven Books in Minneapolis, Burke's Book Store in Memphis (run by a great writer named Corey Mesler), and the wonderful Book Loft near my home in Columbus, Ohio. So while I understand what Wheeler is saying about poorly run independents being replaced by chain stores, I also know that the bookstores which make the biggest impression on me are always independents. And what worries me about the current bookseller landscape is that too many of the great independent bookstores I care about are also at risk of disappearing--and I know the unreal pressure they're facing is not because they are poorly run.