Home » Bookstores, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Video » How independent bookstores thrived in spite of Amazon

How independent bookstores thrived in spite of Amazon

28 November 2017

From Quartz:

When Amazon.com burst onto the nascent online retail scene in 1995, the future seemed bleak for brick-and-mortar independent bookstores—which already faced competition from superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Indeed, between 1995 and 2000, the number of independent bookstores in the United States plummeted 43%, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the promotion of independent bookstores.

But then a funny thing happened. While pressure from Amazon forced Borders out of business in 2011, indie bookstores staged an unexpected comeback. Between 2009 and 2015, the ABA reported a 35% growth in the number of independent booksellers, from 1,651 stores to 2,227.

. . . .

Five years ago, [Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School] set out to discover how independent bookstores managed to survive and even thrive in spite of Amazon and other online retailers.

. . . .

Here are some of Raffaelli’s key findings so far, based on what he has found to be the “3 C’s” of independent bookselling’s resurgence: community, curation, and convening.

  • Community: Independent booksellers were some of the first to champion the idea of localism; bookstore owners across the nation promoted the idea of consumers supporting their local communities by shopping at neighborhood businesses. Indie bookstores won customers back from Amazon, Borders, and other big players by stressing a strong connection to local community values.
  • Curation: Independent booksellers began to focus on curating inventory that allowed them to provide a more personal and specialized customer experience. Rather than only recommending bestsellers, they developed personal relationships with customers by helping them discover up-and-coming authors and unexpected titles.
  • Convening: Independent booksellers also started to promote their stores as intellectual centers for convening customers with likeminded interests—offering lectures, book signings, game nights, children’s story times, young adult reading groups, even birthday parties. “In fact, some bookstores now host over 500 events a year that bring people together,” Raffaelli says.

Link to the rest at Quartz and thanks to Dave for the tip


PG is in favor of people being free to start and run businesses which they believe will provide useful products/services that customers will enjoy and pay for. According to the OP, that appears to be what the owners of Porter Square Books are trying to do.

Porter Square Books is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For those unfamiliar with Cambridge, it is full of people who are those associated in one way or another with extremely expensive private universities – Harvard (estimated annual undergraduate cost of $63,025 for tuition, room, board, and fees) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (estimated annual undergraduate cost of $ $65,478 for tuition, room, board, and fees).

Harvard pays its full professors an average salary of $198,400 per year. The median price of a single-family home in Cambridge hit $1,675,000 during the first four months of 2016.

PG is not denigrating Cambridge or its institutions in any way. He has always enjoyed his many visits there. It’s a stimulating and active community environment and right across the river from downtown Boston which offers an even wider range of attractions and amenities for those who are able to afford them.

PG’s point is that the business environment in which Porter Square books operates is probably optimum for a physical bookstore in 2017 and also atypical of most US cities and suburbs.

The population of Cambridge is currently estimated at 105,162. Fargo, North Dakota, Charleston, South Carolina, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, have populations about the same size.

Green Bay has a median household income of $43,063. The median home price is $129,600.

PG wonders how Porter Square Books would do if it were operating in Green Bay.

A quick internet search found something PG had not expected, Readers Loft Bookstore in Bellevue, a suburb of Green Bay, which appears to be doing well as an indie. PG will leave his earlier remarks in place so you can see a failed snark setup in action.

This is a C-span video and PG apologizes for not being able to get it to embed.


Bookstores, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Video

16 Comments to “How independent bookstores thrived in spite of Amazon”

  1. “Curation: Independent booksellers began to focus on curating inventory that allowed them to provide a more personal and specialized customer experience. Rather than only recommending bestsellers, they developed personal relationships with customers by helping them discover up-and-coming authors and unexpected titles.”

    So they’ll be offering indie/self published works will they?

  2. More about the book loft and how they have managed to survive even with a B&N in town. (Borders is of course gone.) With many pictures, albeit of paper books.


    My post isn’t quite snark-free, however. Green Bay is a short drive from Appleton, headquarters of the 40+ store Book World chain, which is shutting down this fall. Because this shutdown is “just one article” it doesn’t carry quite the impact that 40 individual “bookstore closing” articles might.

  3. I visit two bookstores in the Harrisburg area, both of which rely on author events to draw customers and sales, so there’s something there. You have to adapt to the community you’re in.

  4. I live a mile from Porter Square Books, and I don’t really shop there. I went in one time to discuss them carrying my indie published books. They gave me an email address to contact. I did, and never received a reply. Another time, i asked about arranging a book signing or carrying books on consignment. The person I spoke to said, with a great deal of disdain, “are you another poet?”

    They are thriving, and that’s great for them. But they are not interested in indie books in any capacity.

    • This is the thing about calling these businesses “independent” bookstores. While they aren’t part of a chain, they are all to some degree or another tools of large corporate enterprises. Real independent shop-local philosophy espouses cutting out the middle man and reducing the distance between yourself and the producer of the good you are consuming. “Independent” bookstores do nothing of the sort.

      • Amazon has the world’s largest tool box.

      • True to whatever extent they are beholden to the corporate publishers and their payola and return credits.

        – By the time Borders hit bankruptcy they had been operating off credits for months.
        – During the early months of the agency conspiracy Penguin asked B&N to lean on Random House to get them to “join the fun”. They happily complied though it took Apple using app store threats to get them to toe the line.

        When it comes to sharks and pilot fish it’s hard to tell who’s in charge.

    • Gene, instead go to the New England Mobile Bookfair, just a few miles down the road from you, in Newton. Best bookstore north of NY, and their new location is great! They love Indies- my books are on the shelf next to NY Times Bestsellers (mine are consignment)- and next week, we have our annual Mystery Gala Night, where I get to sign books along with the big pros. Some places are getting it right!

  5. I’ve enjoyed many independent bookstores. O’Gara’s, Woodworth’s, the Seminary Co-op, and the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago. In the Northwest, Shorey’s, Eliot Bay, Third Place Books, and Village Books have all received my time and dollars.

    I have not noticed that independent bookstores have ever had an easy time of it. I remember hot Chicago nights listening to Joe O’Gara talking to the only customer in the store about how bad the business was and how much worse it had gotten. That must have been in about 1970. His store survived from the 1930s into the 21st Century and may still exist in Indiana somewhere.

    As near as I can see Elliot Bay and Third Place are still doing fine, although I don’t get down there that often now. Village Books opened a second store a year or two ago in a town notorious for banning lawn mowing on Sundays. Shorey’s is long gone.

    There can’t be much money in the bookstore business, but the business owners who like selling books seem to figure out ways to keep going.

    I prefer shopping personally curated collections. Although I have written algorithms to suggest additional merchandise unwary shoppers, I think Amazon’s “you might like”s are uniformly less interesting than O’Gara’s crabby suggestions and odd collection wreathed in Prince Albert smoke. Poor guy died of lung cancer, I hear.

  6. The other reason indie bookstores rose is that there was a concerted effort to teach them how to live with just-in-time inventory orders, rather than heaps of buy-and-return inventory.

    Makes all the difference in the world if you can be very conservative in how much you tie up in inventory that doesn’t turn quickly.

  7. I applaud your honesty about the “failed snark set up”, but wonder about its origins. I am a loyal reader of your blog, admire your curation abilities–ironically, one of the factors believed responsible for bookstores’ continuing success–and an occasional commenter. I’ve relayed the same findings about bookstore openings being up, but your commentary often proceeds as if that reality hasn’t been shared.

    Yesterday there was a headline about how laptops damage college students’ ability to absorb material in lectures, and a return to notebooks/pencils is needed. I wonder what it is about the digital wave that seems so positive to you?

    Myself, I fear that if our reliance on tech isn’t curbed, if we don’t save a place for the immersive, the quiet, the non-distracting, the self-reliant, we will lose some of the qualities that have allowed us to develop as a species. Some of what makes us human.

    PS: This Saturday, December 2nd, is the 7th annual Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Spread the word, even if it’s via snark 🙂

    • What ever makes you think technology is not immersive, quiet, non-distracting, and self-reliant? I can’t think of anything more immersive, quiet, non-distracting, and self-reliant than sitting down with a desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone and writing or reading.

      Which other species is it that builds technology? What could be more human?

      Ask my wife and look at the condition of my yard to measure the trance technology throws me into. When I sit down (actually stand up often now) to write– no matter whether code, non-fiction, or fiction– I am quietly immersed.

      I believe students learn less effectively using devices because they haven’t learned to use their brains, not the devices. I remember the revelation I had in college when I realized that thinking about what the instructor was saying was much more important than taking any kind of paper and pen notes. My grade point jumped two notches when I quit giving attention to taking notes.

      It’s not the devices, it’s the willingness to become immersed that matters. If I had my way, we would be encouraging children to become more immersed in technology, not less. If you suggest it’s good to be immersed in a paper book but not in a digital device, your are sending mixed and confusing messages about concentration.

      • Democritus, there’s lots of research about the distracting effects of digital media, particularly on developing brains, but for all of us. Like you, I can work against this built-in capacity (I routinely ignore email/internet/social media without use of such programs as Freedom and the like). But in that we are outliers–this is why there are such programs–and my concern is for everyone, not just the exceptions.

        • I disagree. I’ve worked with digital devices and computers since I was a teenager 50 years ago. I’ve noticed that distraction takes many forms, not just digital devices.

          I’ve read a lot of research on cognitive effects of digital devices. At one point in my career, I considered becoming a specialist in what we used to call “human factors” in computing, studying things like tracking eye motion, designing and testing web pages for knowledge retention, and interfaces that users can successfully navigate and manipulate without training.

          None of the research convinced me that digital interfaces were cognitively substantially different from non-digital, but I did observe that it was easy to make a buck condemning computers. Journalists are always ready to jump on an opportunity to sell papers by interpreting a study in a way that caters to the notion that digital interfaces are in some way sinister.

          Lately, I’ve been following the work of the University of Washington Early Childhood Cognition Lab ( https://depts.washington.edu/eccl ). They perform experiments using functional MRI scans of infants and young children doing things like watching TV, being read to, and using tablets and other devices. Their current conclusions seem to be that the devices are not excessively significant in the depth of impression made on infants, but the involvement of parents and other humans is critical in many ways.

          Of course, I’m self-selecting, choosing research that confirms my personal experience and beliefs, as everyone does. This is difficult and ambiguous stuff and no one can stake a claim to absolute truth. I realize that many people struggle with the richness of the cognitive world we are thrust into today and avoiding digital devices may help cope with it.

          I have a hard time coping with the flood of information sometimes myself. I blame it on the quantity of information available not the delivery vehicle. Still, shooting the messenger is an eminently practical way of coping with too many messages.

          Everyone to their own taste!

  8. They didn’t thrive in spite of Amazon, they thrived because of Amazon. Amazon knocked out some major physical retailers, creating space for indie bookstores to grow in.

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