Kind of what happens when you let an industry “consolidate”. Back in the '70s, we had the Classics chain, and they were good.
In Montreal, we had Classics Paperbacks on Ste-Catherine near Mountain - no hard covers, all paperbacks and trade paperbacks, 3 floors in a narrow brownstone, maybe half the floor area of the Chapters on Rideau and Sussex here in Ottawa. You wanted sci-fi? First floor, straight from the entrance on the back left wall, maybe three 6-shelf bookcases, all the best authors well-represented.
Someone like me looking for professional reading on music? Third floor, right side of the centre island (about three by 3 shelves). I’d browse that section at any available opportunity because I could find books like Jarman’s analytical biography of Alban Berg (or George Perle’s biography of Berg as well), or Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony, or…
Want science or math? You could find Einstein on relativity or Levi-Civita on the absolute differential calculus (i.e., tensor calculus). There weren’t a lot of books of any one type, but oh my! they were well-chosen. Try finding these things in Chapters!
But eventually the chain was bought out by W. H. Smith, and the Classics Paperbacks store, being the unionised shop that it was, was the first to be shut down. The other large Classics outlet down the street near Guy? Well, the first thing you would be greeted with would be remaindered books. (Sound familiar?)
During my first years in Ottawa, there was a good independent bookstore called Prospero - general stock well thought out, a good science fiction section, a very good section on IT (even found a very in-depth book on how to design and make digital and hybrid synthesisers). The bookstore still exists, but it was bought out by Coles, I believe, who merged with Smith Books to form Chapters, who were bought out by Indigo…
Wanna guess what the selection is like in Prospero now? Wanna guess what the first thing that greets you as you go in the door is? There’s a pattern here…
…and I would call it an incredibly boneheaded pattern if it weren’t for the fact that the upper management probably doesn’t care because they are making out like bandits regardless of the company’s health. Otherwise, it is precisely people like me who keep bookstores in business. In the course of my life, I have probably bought enough books to stock a (somewhat specialised) urban branch library or a small town’s central library. When I shop for books, I am looking for something I haven’t seen before: I don’t know what it is until I see it. When I entered Classics Paperbacks or pre-buyout Prospero, it was pretty much guaranteed that I was coming out with at least one book in my hands, and it was also guaranteed that I would visit at least once a week.
The flip side, of course, is that I had better find books that I consider worth reading, and I am fussier than the average Joe who goes in a couple of times a year to pick up the latest thriller by his favourite best-selling (hack) writer. (That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a good trashy novel - I certainly can, depending on how well the trashy novelist keeps the story moving, but that is not all I want to see on the shelves.) Someone like me is guaranteed to spend as much in a couple of weeks as most customers spend in a year. A bookseller should want to lure people like me into their store - I’m far from unique in my buying habits - but it takes skilled buyers to do that.
I don’t buy books that way anymore because I go in, look at the shelves, and there is very, very little worth reading. If it takes me half an hour of browsing to find a book that I might want to spend an evening reading, there’s a problem. If I can’t find professional reading at all (and I don’t know what new reading is available until I see it), there is an even bigger problem.