ATG NewsChannel Original: Indie Bookstores Fight Back – Working To Recreate These Institutions (Part 2)

Nancy Hertherby Nancy K. Herther

(This is part 2 of a 2 part series.  Here is a link to Part 1

Bookstores have been beaten, bruised and left for dead in the wake of ebook hype, economic forces and changes in consumer habits over the past 20 years. “The digital onslaught of ebooks and Amazon-style e-tailers have put bookstores in an existential predicament,” an Economist article predicted in 2013. “Digital books are expected to outsell print titles by 2015 in Britain, says Sam Hancock, digital product manager at HarperCollins, and even sooner in America…..bricks-and-mortar bookstores appear to be on borrowed time.”

However, it would seem that the reports of the death of the bookshop are exaggerated at best. Today independent bookstores are not only continuing to stay in business, but often reinventing themselves as community gathering spots, places for book talks, book clubs, meet-the-author events, poetry slams, lectures, coffee shops, children’s story hours and even hands-on events for budding authors, preschool children as well as amateur genealogists or artists. You can meet up with friends, eat your lunch or settle into a comfortable chair to relax and read.  And the budding self-publishing author can perhaps cook up copies of their own books as well.

Richmond Virginia’s Fountain Bookstore Finds Its Groove

After managing the Fountain Bookstore  in Richmond, Virginia, for eight years, Kelly Justice decided to buy the store in 2008 and for over 8 years has worked to move the bookstore into new web-based areas while maintaining a strong sense of place for the 1857 renovated storefront.What I brought to the store was a philosophy of bookselling that is inclusive. That is my main goal as a bookseller, that this is a bookstore for everybody. It’s a place of connection where no one will ever encounter any snobbery or judgment, and no one will feel left out.”

Fountain Bookstore logo

“I think it is a mistake to make assumptions in any direction about the future of success in independent bookselling, she explains to ATG. “While national trends show that more bookstores are opening and the ones that have remained open in the last several years have grown measurably smarter, there are still some dark spots in this shiny outlook.”

“Small markets, rural markets, and markets that are traditionally conservative are still terribly underserved by indie bookstores,” Justice continues, “and most kids in those areas are growing up without a bookstore home. I’d like to see that change. The fight is by no means over and our competition has far more resources than we do.  I hope that the general public understands this and does not feel like ‘oh, it’s OK to shop at Amazon and B&N now because the news says that my local indie is indestructible’. That’s just not the case. Every customer still counts. Everyone is still important to us.”

“We have become far more savvy with relation to financial planning, buying, marketing, mix of books with other merchandise,” Justice reveals. “We have learned how to sell online our way, where the customers are our friends not units. This has been a great strategy for us. Honestly, though, we wouldn’t be able to do online retailing in that cold/algorithmic way. It’s not in me and it’s not in my staff either.”

“How do you see the general future of bookstores?” Justice asks rhetorically.  “Does the better financial reports from B&N and Amazon’s opening of two brick-and-mortar book stores in the U.S. point to a strong future? Or does this really represent another challenge for indie stores? I think it is just the next challenge. But we’re up for it.”

“Online sales is a natural extension of our relationships with our authors and our customers,”Justice concludes. “It is almost entirely based on connecting fans with their authors in a way that is authentic, exciting, and fun. It’s a party! We celebrate new releases with our online customers and rejoice when we see them post their pictures online of their new treasures. It is wonderful to be able to provide this service for Maggie Stiefvater,  John and Sherry Petersik of Young House Love fame, Lara Kaye and a host of other authors in smaller, but growing, ways. It’s the biggest, baddest book party you can throw! Who wouldn’t want to grow that kind of business? But the key is keeping it personal. In the next 3-5 years, we intend to stay that way, one-to-one, one book at a time. Maybe we’ll never be as fast, but we’ll always provide a better experience.”

Green Apple Books Provides Finds Profitability and Renewed Strength

Green Apple Books logo“Independent bookstores have kept surviving or thriving in spite of all the economic rationality of Amazon’s lower prices,” reports Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of San Francisco’s Green Apple Books.  “In the indie channel, there are more and more stores, and sales data seem strong.” This is backed up by data released by Publishers Weekly recently finding that bookstore sales increased 2.5% in 2015, which was the first time sales increased since 2007. Named one of the top ten bookstores in 2015 by the Christian Science Monitor, author David Eggers describes the store as “deceptively simple, humble, even misleading,” with Eggers himself remembering how he mistook the bookstore for a fruit market at first. “But it’s a bookstore, and it’s a world-class bookstore…. Green Apple’s floors, most of which are over a hundred years old, creak wherever you go, and when you walk upstairs, there will be small clouds of dust. The place is old, and smells old, in the best sense; it smells like paperbacks and sun and paperbacks faded in the sun.”

Green Apple has also done some interesting collaborations, such as with the OkCupid dating site,  which has used the bookstore as a meeting spot for events, creating a second location in a nearly defunct Le Video shop building in order to expand the reach of both stores into their upscale neighborhood.   In 2014, Green Apple was named Publishers Weekly‘s Bookstore of the Year, noting that the “47-year-old labyrinthine bookstore….has earned a name for itself for community involvement: for founding the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Association, participating on the boards of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and the Clement Street Merchants Association, and advising Litquake and the San Francisco Library’s One City One Book program. In addition, Green Apple is the driving force behind this year’s 93-store strong inaugural California Bookstore Day, which is loosely based on Record Store Day and could serve as a prototype for a national bookstore celebration.”

Bookstores and Authors Collaborate in New Ways

Indie bookstores and authors have always had important connections – and we are now seeing more collaborations as well.  Here are just a few examples:

Judy Blume

Judy Blume

At 78, children’s award-winning author Judy Blume doesn’t have to prove her writing skills.  Looking for a new challenge, she has set up her own indie bookstore in the Florida Keys.  Along with her husband and with the experienced bookseller Mitchell Kaplan (founder of Books & Books), Blume opened Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West. The store boasts being “locally owned, nonprofit, independently minded neighborhood bookstore. We serve as a community center for readers and writers, hosting author events and featuring a carefully curated selection of books and gift items.”

The store, a “distinctive three-story nineteen-fifties former Masonic Temple,” opened in January with an inventory of about “3,000 titles covering everything from Art to Zebras.” Blume herself, said to have sold over 75 million copies of her many books, reports that she loves being a bookseller. “I was going to relax and read and have this whole time with no pressure. And then bingo – the chance comes along to open a bookshop, and there you go. I guess I like that in my life … To learn something new like this, at 78, makes it all the more exciting….I just think people are so hungry for a real bookstore again. So many people live in places where there isn’t one … It’s not just us doing well. A lot of independent booksellers are,” Blume was recently quoted as saying.

Novelist Ann Patchett decided to open a bookstore in Nashville after the town’s only bookstore closed in 2010. “How had this happened? Had digital books led us astray? Had we been lured away by the siren song of Amazon’s underpricing? Had we been careless, failing to support the very places that had hosted our children’s story hours and brought in touring authors and set up summer-reading tables,” Patchett reflected in a think piece published in The Atlantic. “Journalists were calling from Germany and India, wanting to talk about the bookstore. Every interview started off the same way: Hadn’t I heard the news? Had no one thought to tell me? Bookstores were over. Then, one by one, the interviewers recounted the details of their own favorite stores, and I listened. They told me, confidentially and off the record, that they thought I just might succeed.” Her bookstore, Parnasus Books, has succeeded and now serves an active clientele and has found success: “My job has become something I could never have imagined, and while it surely benefits Parnassus, Parnassus is not exactly the point. Without ever knowing that such a position existed, let alone that it might be available, I have inadvertently become the spokesperson for independent bookstores. People still want books; I’ve got the numbers to prove it.”

Ann Patchett in her bookstore

Ann Patchett in her bookstore

In Minneapolis, Louise Erdrich, author of many award-winning books that often reflect her Native heritage, operates Birchbark Books . The store proudly describes itself as “not owned by a corporation; we are not part of a chain. We are that increasingly rare thing — a tiny independent bookstore. We exist to keep real conversations between book lovers alive. We exist to nourish and build a community based on books. We are a neighborhood bookstore, and also an international presence. Our visitors come from Minneapolis-St. Paul, from every U.S. reservation and Canadian reserve, and from all over the world. We are different from all other bookstores on earth!”

In addition to offering a wide selection of books and other materials, Erdrich has created a unique destination: “Minneapolis and St. Paul have one of the largest concentrations of urban Native people in the United States. Birchbark Books provides a locus for Native intellectual life. We are native owned (Louise Erdrich is an enrolled Turtle Mountain Chippewa) and our staff is of either Native background, or exceedingly Native-friendly!” Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books is another Twin Cities mainstay for readers.

Gulf Cost Bookstore opened in downtown Fort Myers Florida. The store’s focus is as “the first ‘local-authors-only’ retail location of its kind. It serves as the home to 54 authors representing cities from Fort Gulf Coast BookstoreMyers to Marco Island.” The store has a very unique – but apparently successful – mission. As noted in an article in Publishers Weekly, “self-published authors rent shelf space for three months for $60, plus a $15 set-up fee, close to what they might spend to exhibit a single title at a day-long book fair. They also handle stocking and restocking. In return, the authors receive 100% of every sale rather than 40% from a bookstore that sells their books on consignment.” Inventory is refreshed/reorganized biweekly and the owners work hard to bring in authors for programming and signings at the shop.

Gulf Coast Bookstore store co-founder and co-owner Patti Brassard Jefferson, also owns the PJ Boox bookstore  in the city which “currently houses 260 authors from about 11 countries, and plans to grow that number to 500 by the time they hit full capacity, each author getting to display ten of their books in the store. The way the store displays the books allows for readers to get a full look at the books’ covers, which allows readers to make a more powerful connection with the books. And the most interesting and exciting part, at least in my humble opinion, is that authors can actually interact with readers, from anywhere in the world, via Skype or other video-chat options, all in the store’s reading room.”

Bookseller Amy Thomas Questions Amazon’s Local Focus

However, this indie renaissance doesn’t mean that the big-box stores and online retail don’t continue to operate and control much of the marketplace. With Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle, indies have been expressing their own concerns about what this means for the future of bookstores.  Amy Thomas, President for Life of Pegasus Books in the Berkeley/Oakland areas of San Francisco Bay area recently expressed the concern of many in a recent op-ed for the Daily Californian  in which she contemplated Amazon’s continuingexistential crisis that is affecting far more than bookstores. Retailers need other retailers near them, open and thriving, and the retail community at large got smacked by Amazon’s almost preternaturally predatory business practices.”

“A recent economic study by Civic Economics tells the tale,” Thomas continues. “In 2014, Amazon sold $44.1 billion worth of retail goods nationwide, while avoiding $625 million in state and local sales taxes. That is the equivalent of 30,000 storefronts, 107 million square feet of commercial space, which might have paid $420 million in property taxes. Amazon also operated 65 million square feet of distribution space, employing roughly 30,000 full-time workers and 104,000 part time and seasonal workers. Even counting all the jobs in Amazon distribution centers, Amazon sales produced a net loss of 135,873 retail jobs.”

“Because Amazon was an early tech company,” Thomas concludes, “it has also enjoyed the tremendous and unprecedented support of lawmakers, who have routinely written special laws and tax deals just for it. Nearly two decades ago, I listened as members of the State Board of Equalization explained that this fragile new industry needed special protections, and so Amazon would not be required to remit sales tax. I was sitting right there, and my business was not considered suitable for such consideration. That decision in a stroke made bricks and mortar uncompetitive on price.”

Peter Makin’s Brilliant Bookstore Plans for the Future

Owner of the Traverse City, Michigan Brilliant Books, Peter Makin believes that the predictions of the death of bookstores was really more “an indication of the fear and panic that these fundamental changes in retail brought about. Personally, I never believed that ebooks would be the preferred way that a majority would read. In 2011/12 was laughed at for my bold insistence that many people would try eReaders but most would prefer reading a tangible object, and that ebooks would mainly effect ‘disposable fiction’ at the lower end of the market. The Kindle was never going to be the iPod.”

“IrBrilliant Books logoonically,” Makin continues, “I think it is still feasible that Amazon will kill bookstores, but not for the reasons most people might think. I think Amazon may well succeed because the current ABA leadership have no ideas or policies for bookselling in the 21st century. Instead of trying to address the rapidly changing retail environment, and educate its members in ways to thrive in a digital age, the ABA uses its resources to try to get booksellers to persuade people that Amazon is evil, and everyone should stop using them.”

“Primarily we understood the shifts in retail, Makin believes, “Amazon has taken the cheap and convenient end of the market. Rather than mourning the loss of that constituency, or hoping that they would all come back if only they understood the evil and depth of impact of Amazon, at Brilliant Books we concentrated on the market that was there for us, both in the streets and online. We have managed to create an in-store, and an on-line, environment that works, stocked with things folks want to buy. We understand how to Amazon proof our store, and how the product mix, the service level, and the overall experience determine whether someone shops with us, not price.”

“I honestly think that if we don’t start educating booksellers in how to cope with the 21st Century, we’ll see a lot more stores close over the next 5 – 10 years,” Makin cautions. “This could well be seen as an era where bookstores had everything going in their favor, and somehow blew it. When Amazon brick and mortar stores start demanding authors, the impact on the older style stores will be devastating. At Winter Institute we had 4 sessions on how awful Amazon is, plus a number of other sessions which consisted mainly of hand-wringing. We’re on the wrong side of the minimum wage issue, and the current board seems to have no ideas about how to educate bookstores to sell more books to a 21st Century audience.”

However, Makin is no naysayer.  He has specific advice for his colleagues: “There are a few policies that to my mind are taking bookstores into absolutely the wrong direction:

  • Suggesting we ‘raise our margins’ by selling more used books and remainders. This encourages bookstores to compete in the cheap and convenient arena, where Amazon will win. The opposite path is the one I believe bookstores should take. Move up-market. We caused gasps in a Winter Institute session when we proudly declared that we “only sell Magic Treehouse in hardcover”. But that’s the future.
  • Encouraging bookstores to sell anything from record players to incense. This will work with the folks at the pointy end of the sales funnel. They’ll buy anything from their favorite bookstore. But doing so dilutes the brand of ‘indie bookstore’ to such an extent that those seeking that very special experience only a good bookstore can provide, are put off.
  • Conflating Amazon with online sales. By blaming everything on their favorite bogeyman, the ABA is casting all shopping on-line as a bad thing. One cannot really encourage one’s members to be 21st century omni-channel retailers when the on-line component is seen as an existential threat.
  • Promoting “New Localism” over “Shop Small”. This is a huge mistake. Essentially localism died when Walmart started running “Your Local Walmart” TV ads. The ABA should be embracing Shop Small, which promotes small, independent businesses whether they are bricks-and-mortar, on-line or omni-channel, and encouraging their members to be all that, not simply ‘local’.”

“Shop Small,” Makin assures us, “is in tune with how 21st century retail works. Many people prefer dealing with small businesses as opposed to mega corporations. That these businesses are small, artistic, quirky and independent are all important; that they are local really isn’t. Crucially, on-line shopping cannot be promoted alongside a New Localism message. It is diametrically opposed to online at a time when shoppers are more and more enhancing their retail experience through connectivity. Shop Small inherently understands this; understands where modern small business needs to go, and understands the modern consumer.”

ABA and HarperCollins’ New Bookstore Development Plan

May 11th, HarperCollins announced a “New Bookstore Development Program” for indie booksellers in the U.S. to support the opening new stores or expanding to new locations. Beginning July 1st, the program will provide qualifying stores with “market development and fixture fund discounts” as well as “grants toward ABA membership dues and three months of Above the Treeline fees.” “Local independent bookstores play a significant role in community life around the nation and there is definitely room for many more of them,” Josh Marwell, President of Sales, HarperCollins Publishers noted in the press release. “We want to do everything we reasonably can to encourage such growth, especially in the critical early days of a new store’s life.”

“We are grateful to our friends at HarperCollins for recognizing the role independent bookstores play in their communities and for helping to make it easier for additional stores to be opened,’ ABA’s Oren Teicher was quoted in the release. “While our market has shown surprising strength these past few years, there remain many under-served communities all across the country and we hope programs like Harper’s will help fill the gaps.”

In an interview on ABA’s bookweb blog, Marwell noted that “all bookselling is local. It’s in the interest of our authors and their readers to see a bookstore on every Main Street in the country. We also know that there are communities and areas that are currently underserved that would welcome, support, and embrace a new bookstore in town. We value a diverse book ecosystem that includes the largest variety of outleRevolutions in book publishingts where books are available. We think that’s good for basic business, civic culture, and community life.”

Researchers Look at the Unique Nature of the Book Store in Western Tradition

In the words of Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman (quoted in Revolutions in Book Publishing: The Effects of Digital Innovation on the industry By Lall Ramrattan and Michael Szenberg; Palgrave Macmillan, 2016 DOI: 10.1057/978113756217), “in the bookselling industry, the distinction between price and non-price competition, playing out in the competing worlds of brick-and-mortar bookstores and Internet marketing as well as of print books versus ebooks…conclud[ing] that the competition between print books and ebooks is a ‘zero-sum game.’ This competition has resulted in major changes not only in how books are bought and sold but also who is selling them; like many other industries, bookselling is undergoing major consolidation.”  However economists see this, others see something much more nuanced.

Laura Miller has written on the tension or ‘‘ambivalence towards business values in the world of books’’ (Miller L. “Perpetual turmoil: book retailing in the 21st century United States.” Logos. 2011;22 (3): 16–25.). As a capitalist enterprise, booksellers are required to make a profit and need to view books as commodities and the people who visit their stores as consumers. On the other hand, the literary world generally rejects an economic, commercialized definition, preferring to focus on books as something more than just a commodity.  Miller believes that in order to truly understand the book selling trade,  we need to beyond the spreadsheets and technological change but to consider as equally key the ‘‘cultural meanings’’ attached to ‘‘books, literacy and technology’.” These meanings, she asserts ‘‘have produced a context in which bookstores appear to be an anachronism.’’  believing strongly that bookstores are not a “dying breed,” she concludes it is critical to consider the geographical context of bookselling despite this being a global industry.

Miller’s viewpoints were supported in a recent article in Publishing Research Quarterly which found that “very much in evidence was a deep feeling of affection for the printed word separately or in conjunction with a sense of purpose or mission beyond the view of books as just another commodity.” (Brendan Luyt & Adrian Heok, “David and Goliath: Tales of Independent Bookstores in Singapore,”Publishers Research Quarterly 31(2): 122-131, 2015)

The future doesn’t have a roadmap yet…which is clearly for the better. Instead, we can reflect on those wonderful bookshop owners, who have been what Robert Darnton has referred to as the “forgotten middlemen of literature” demonstrating “the character of publishing as an activity”…the place where “the transactions that brought into being a small amount of literature from the nebulous vastness of the literature than might have been.” (Robert Darnton, The Kiss of L’Amourette: Reflections in Cultural History (Norton, 1990), pp. 128, 138.) Few predictions on the digital transformation at the micro-level have proven to hold true as these changes continue to evolve. For the present, it is clear that the book and the bookstore continue to have a strong presence in Western culture and in the lives of their communities.

Nancy K. Herther is Librarian for American Studies, Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.

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