SocraticGadfly: Can Half Price Books survive? Is it already dead?

April 04, 2020

Can Half Price Books survive? Is it already dead?

Last week, with both the main library in the county where I live and the smaller one where I work(ed before mainly remotely) shuttered, I started thinking about a Texas institution — Half Price Books.

A fair amount of people in states to the west know about it, too, but its home and origins are here. Like HEB Grocery, it's one of Texas' better institutions.

If it lives much longer.

Googling to see if it has a Denton location, the top hit was from Publishers Weekly announcing three-quarters of its staff were laid off or furloughed, as of earlier last Thursday. Linked within that was a piece from two weeks earlier announcing all stores had closed to the public. That got it the dubious honor of largest bookstore chain to close in the face of the coronavirus.

Its offers of curbside pickup and more? Sounds like little more than PR, especially since it's talking about trying to hold on to its leases, which means ... it can't pay those leases right now.

That, in turn, makes me wonder how thin its ice was before this. The original store closures announcement said it would only be until March 31. I suspect the company knew it likely wouldn't stay open after that.

So? The idea of reopening? I doubt it. I sadly, and seriously, doubt it.

I mean, it's in a Catch-22. It's selling off all its old stock. But, if the stores are all closed, it isn't getting any new stuff from patrons. It may still be getting remaindered stuff from first-run bookstores, but that's not that much. If you went to the typical HBP, 80 percent of its stuff was trade-ins by customers, if not more. No more than 20 percent, if that much, was remaindered. The percentage was higher on CDs and DVDs, but even there, I'm guessing more than half was still trade-ins.

So, it's time to reminisce.

I was last at the flagship on Northwest Highway what, last fall? In my brief return to Marlin two years ago, I visited a newish semi-outlet location in Waco. I often went to the one in Cedar Hill when I lived in the Best Southwest a decade-plus ago. Took pix of their Banned Books Week display one year for my newspaper.

I have many memories from multiple locations, in other words.

One of them was HPB as a way of expanding my musical world. I bought many nature sounds CDs there, but also a number of both traditional, or classical, and modern world music albums. Stuff like Pakistani bagpipes and Japanese koto music. Especially after the CD Warehouse place on Greenville just north of Lovers closed years ago, it was the one place for me to still look for music.

So, what happened?

The remaindered and other CDs? YouTube probably hurt that. The flagship likely did a lot of vintage vinyl sales, but I think that fad has peaked again. And, even though often cheaper than the Yellow Bezos Bus on used books, that may have had a ding.

That said, we'll probably never really know. It's family owned, and not publicly traded. So, other mistakes or whatever that may be part of the story probably won't come to light.

And, no, I don't expect it to reopen. Not in a bricks-and-mortar sense.

(Update: I was told on Twitter that HBP wouldn't go into Denton because it wouldn't compete with Recycled Books. I asked in what sense that "won't compete" was being used. If it was simply not to battle it out with another bookstore, I understand that. If it was the idea that HBP woudn't be competitive? Not true. I've been in Recycled Books. No way I'd pay their prices.)

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