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Why Independent Bookstores Matter Now More Than Ever

From The Writers Dig:

This past year and a half has been one of turmoil, noise and political chaos, rising to a level that most of us have never experienced. In our world of uncertainty and change, self-care is perhaps more important than ever. Amid an onslaught of 24-7 news and a seemingly increasingly unstable world, we need to find points of calm. I have found a major haven over the past few years in independent bookstores, and I wanted to talk a little bit about as to why I think they’re more important today than ever.

Sure, online retailers (and I’m sure we all have the “big one” in mind) can offer customers significantly lower prices and an exponentially greater book inventory. Yes, there’s also the convenience factor: Customers don’t need to leave home to buy a book; they can do so from the comfort of their own couch with just the click of a button. But it’s important to remember that the online retailers are e-commerce specialists, not booksellers. Booksellers are people – they are consummate bibliophiles who take joy in matching reader to writer. And that human component is an important part of the literary experience.

. . . .

Community: Independent bookstores are often fixtures in the communities that they serve, acting as everything from a safe space for kids to come to after school, to an enjoyable way for a group of friends to pass a Saturday afternoon. Indie bookstores also help to strengthen the economic base of the local community. In a 2015 “Dear Reader” post, Roxanne Coady—owner of R. J. Julia, an independent bookstore in Madison, CT—said, “For every $100 you spend in a locally owned store, $73 stays in the local economy, whereas $100 spent in national chains returns $43 to the local economy.” Not only do you get a book for those dollars you spend in local stores, but they stay in your community.

. . . .

Convening: The local bookstore offers a home to both authors and readers. It is a welcoming place to come together and to feel comfortable and at ease. It is a place for like-minded individuals to gather together and exchange ideas.

. . . .

Contact: Independent booksellers value engaging those who read, and this personal contact is critical for all of us. Booksellers focus on long-term relationships with customers, and they seek to enhance the direct customer experience through personalized and specialized services. Knowing the customer and supporting their individual interests and needs helps to ensure customer retention.

Link to the rest at The Writers Dig

PG says some independent bookstores are like the descriptions in the OP, but others, unfortunately, are not. He has no problem identifying several independent bookstores he has enjoyed visiting and would happily visit again. Unfortunately, none are nearby and PG’s present reading interests are far enough out of the mainstream that they require a large or very specialized bookstore to satisfy.

Additionally, most of the community/gathering elements described in the OP are available in locations other than bookstores.

When the PG’s go out to lunch, their most frequent destination is a small restaurant where they know and are known by many of the staff. One woman who works there regularly asks Mrs. PG about her latest book.

Of all the businesses adversely impacted by Amazon, PG feels the most sympathy for independent bookstores. Unfortunately, mortuaries are the only successful long-term retail businesses based on sympathy that come immediately to mind.


34 Comments to “Why Independent Bookstores Matter Now More Than Ever”

  1. Mortuaries! Man, this Passive Guy guy… I’ve been reading TPV for several years now, and I never get tired of his wit.

  2. The problem is that while independent bookstores are independent because they are not part of a larger chain, they are NOT actually independent in terms of what they sell. They all offer some subset of what large publishing houses put out. They do NOT sell works by independent AUTHORS.

    Independent they may say they are, but in reality they are tools of the big corporate publishers. In that respect they restrict and restrain your reading horizons, rather than expand them, and because of that they don’t matter more, they matter less.

  3. “The problem is that while independent bookstores are independent because they are not part of a larger chain, they are NOT actually independent in terms of what they sell. They all offer some subset of what large publishing houses put out. They do NOT sell works by independent AUTHORS.”

    1. Independent bookstores have to carry some of the frontlist titles that chain bookstores stock in order to survive financially. The vast majority of people who walk into a bookstore are looking for the latest bestseller or what one agent described to me as a “hoopla book”, something like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. These books generate most of the revenue of bookstores, whether they’re chin or independent. Most customers are not looking for a poetry collection published by Copper Canyon Press, which an independent bookstore might carry, and they certainly aren’t looking for your self-published book, which they don’t even know exists.

    2. Good independent bookstores carry noteworthy books from some of the many publishers that exist outside the Big 5 that you won’t find shelved at the chains.

    3. For the most part neither chain or independent bookstores stock self-published books, for practical reasons.

    • Most customers are not looking for a poetry collection published by Copper Canyon Press, which an independent bookstore might carry, and they certainly aren’t looking for your self-published book, which they don’t even know exists.

      Funny, then, how Amazon manages to move all those millions of books that nobody knows exists.

      • True, only because Amazon now has probably over over a million self-pubbed Kindle titles. If each title sells only one copy, you got yer million sales right there. A few sell a a shit load, most don’t. Nevertheless, ebooks currently represent about 25% of the book market, so they are invisible to many people who buy print books, especially the casual buyer who wander into a bookstore looking for the latest Big Thing event book.

        • Your sneers at self-published work are duly noted. A lot of writers are making their living by self-publishing on Amazon, but according to you, nobody has ever heard of them.

          By the way, that 25% figure comes from traditional publishers, which, by and large, have done everything in their power to retard the adoption of ebooks and preserve the value of their print cartel. A great tranche of the industry is simply invisible to the people who compile those numbers; and, it would seem, to you as well.

        • Terrence OBrien

          A few sell a a s*** load, most don’t.

          That sounds very much like a commercially published novel.

          • Hush you! Don’t pop the poor kid’s bubble like that!

            Trad-pub has to know better – trad-pub mouthpieces told him so! 😉

        • Peter Winkler, If you truly believe that ebooks account for only 25% of the market, your sources of information are woefully impaired.

          October 2011 — more than six years ago — Jeff Bezos reported that ebook unit sales had matched pbook unit sales at Amazon. At that time, ebook unit sales were going asymptotic.

          In 2014, Forbes reported that ebook sales accounted for 30% of the market. Given the willful blindness of their sources, that was likely too low.

          What is the ebook share of the market today? Depends on the genre. My guess is that 90% of the romance genre is ebook. Mysteries and thrillers, perhaps 50%. SFF, 60 to 75%. I don’t know ’cause I don’t have the numbers. But neither do you.

    • So what I hear you saying here is that “Independent” bookstores have to primarily offer Big Publishing books because that is all most people care about. If they are ‘good’, then they can also, perhaps, stock some books from smaller publishers. For ‘practical’ reasons they don’t stray beyond these sources to consider self-published works.

      Which is exactly my point. “Independent” bookstores don’t *really* care about expanding your reading horizons. They don’t consider self-published works, regardless of merit, even though some of the best books I have on my Kindle are from self-published “Independent” authors. They don’t know about the wider world of what is available – they only offer what is their publishing overlords supply them with. They are “Independent” in name, but not in deed.

      The argument of the OP is that “Independent” bookstores are more important now than ever. My argument is that their ‘practical limitations render them even less so.

      • some of the best books I have on my Kindle are from self-published “Independent” authors.

        Clearly they aren’t. Peter Winkler says nobody has ever heard of self-published authors, so you’re obviously drunk or lying. RIght?

      • Interesting, DaveMich. Love to see the study you pulled that silly claim out of. Indie bookstores work with indie and local authors all the time, far more than any B&N. And indie bookstores care about events for local authors and selling local authors. We just did a kickstarter for our indie bookstore to remodel and get even more room for indie authors because, oh yeah, THEY SELL.

        And many, many smart indie writers are getting their books into the trade channels right along with the traditional publishers just fine, and for very little money.

        So I would be glad to look at the study where you pulled those claims from, Dave. But got a hunch you don’t have one and are just knee-jerking as many do here about bookstores in general because PG hates all bookstores in general. Not sure why. I will let PG explain that.

        • Terrence OBrien

          Let’s see the study showing how independent bookstores work with authors all the time. And the study showing they care? Studies, studies, studies…

          • Terrence, what I was objecting to was DaveMich’s flat “this is a fact” when I know for a fact it is not with about ten stores that I know of personally, including an indie store I own. And another one here in the same small town.

            It is the blanket statement I an objecting to and the hate of all bookstores that often comes through here. I have zero doubt (and have seen it first hand) poorly run indie stores exist, stores who will not talk with indie writers at all. Yup, they exist. But it is not all of them by a long, long ways.

            Now if DaveMich was saying B&N stores don’t work with indie authors, I would tend to agree even though I know of some that have. But that is rare and not worth the indie author’s time in my opinion.

        • I’m always interested in hearing about your experiences with your bookstore Mr. Smith. It gives us new insights into something that we otherwise only experience as consumers, which is what my opinions were based on. Perhaps you are growing a different sort of bookstore in your neck of the woods than in mine. I am curious though, why did you finance your remodel via Kickstarter?


          • To give the obvious answer, he used a Kickstarter because it made money and generated publicity (which will turn into more money). If you can get people to buy products (which if you look at the tiers, is what people are actually doing) under the guise of a Kickstarter for something you want to do, why wouldn’t you? He’s literally pre-selling stuff, which is a great way to take the risk out of something for a business.

            Dean and his wife are a couple of the best at generating alternate sources of revenue, whether alternate rights sales, workshops, collectibles, book stores, Kickstarters, subscriptions, magazines, etc… It probably helps that they treat their work as a business making a profit, rather than as a job just doing one specific thing.

            • Felix J. Torres

              Kinda like Bezos turning Amazon’s necessary computing infrastructure expertise into AWS. Or Kindle Special Offers into a growing ad business.

          • What Thomas said, for the most part. Thanks, Thomas.

            But we are writers first and we wanted to try something. We bought the bookstore six months ago and it has four extra rooms that were going unused and needed help. So surface point #1. But if we took one of the big rooms and fixed it, we could then start bringing in indie books. And we are developing a fairly simple online submission system for authors to get their books into the store. If it works, we will give, for free the same system to other bookstores.

            But the real reason was to make room for indie books and to clear some inventory, as Thomas said. And to support schools and library systems, something we believe in as well.

            As for our experience, our store sells internationally, not so much locally. Sure, tourists help, but our focus is outward more and more. Only way for a store to survive in this day and age.

        • Hey Dean, love your posts. I want to tell you why you see a ‘hate’ on TPV for bookstores. It really isn’t hate, but let me explain. I’m from a small island town by the name of Ketchikan Alaska. Pre-internet the small businesses from the coffee shop to the auto-mechanic to, well, everyone, would add 30-40% to the price of everything. In 1991 we were paying 1.65 gallon for gas. In Seattle, it was 95c. At the same time, we paid almost $3 for a gallon of milk. I know this because 91 is when I joined the Army and traveled to the lower 48 for the first time.

          What do you think happened when the internet showed up? I can tell you this, shipping didn’t add 30-40% to the price. When Walmart opened up (outside the city limits because the city raised business taxes at the same time) a lot of small business were no longer in business. No one cried for them. They made a fortune taking advantage of the townspeople.

          On to bookstores. For people like PG who likely remember life before B&N the loss of the big box store is a champaign and caviare event. Little ‘independent’ bookstores may not be much better, though. I had a really nice one in Seattle. The one here in Boise isn’t fun to go into and everything is overpriced and you get sneered at for looking at genre fiction. I’m not saying all bookstores are like that, but clearly enough that multiple people spread out across the US have the same feeling about them.

          Me personally? I miss Borders. I loved the Seattle Borders and spent a lot of time there. Other than the little shop I knew about on Capitol Hill, independent bookstores haven’t been a much better experience for me than B&N (which I despise). I would love, love, LOVE to come visit Kristine and yours. I’m huge fans of you both and I am sure your store (and your friends’ stores) are examples as to how it should be done. Alas, if only all stores were that way.

          • Felix J. Torres

            I don’t see a hate for bookstores per se, but rather disdain for the nostalgialistic articles that ignore historical reality to promote a mythical vision that had at most a fleeting existence in a few big city pockets decades ago.

            These paens to bookstores’ magic community powers strike me as akin to bemoaning the decline of the broadcast networks over the past four decades and ignoring how the increase in video distribution channels has brought about an explosion of content and a golden age for fans of many genres and subgenres that would not be available in decades past.

            Online and digital book distribution are doing for publishing what cable, video rental, and now streaming are doing to video. Peak TV is a sign of what peak literature might look like once fully freed of the constraints of corporate publishing and B&M shelf space limitations.

            For those of us looking forward to this future, the reactionary nostalgialist screeds lead mostly to eye rolls, sighs, and snark rather than the wistful reminiscing they aim to evince.

            I would suggest snarky disdain isn’t strong enough to qualify as hate.


  4. “They don’t consider self-published works, regardless of merit, even though some of the best books I have on my Kindle are from self-published “Independent” authors.”

    You don;t really want to understand what I’m saying.

    There are very simple practical reasons why not just independent bookstores stock few if any self-published books.

    1. Many self-pubbed books are ebook only.

    2. There is no equivalent of Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal or Booklist which they can look to as a credible source of reviews to guide them on which self-published books they might consider carrying. And before you try a gotcha by pointing out that PW and Kirkus have an insert of reviews of SP books, those reviews are paid for by authors, so nobody trusts them.

    3. Your point that independent stores can’t provide a truly well-rounded selection of off the beaten path books without stocking SP titles is just silly. There were 300,000 books traditionally published last year. Even the most assiduous buyer would be hard pressed to keep up with a fraction of those without also taking on a million or more SPs without a reliable guide.

    • There were 300,000 books traditionally published last year. Even the most assiduous buyer would be hard pressed to keep up with a fraction of those

      No buyer does keep up with more than a fraction of those.

      Apparently your argument is now, ‘Nobody cares about self-published books because the number of traditionally published books is so large.’ That, Sir, is as foolish an argument as I’ve ever read in a press release from Hachette.

    • I don’t have a problem with either Peter’s or Tom’s views.

      Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world by a large margin. For all intents and purposes, the number of titles it can offer approaches infinity.

      Amazon also provides reasonably good tools to make navigating through its enormous digital bookshelves and finding interesting books pretty easy. One of those ways is by connecting books to other books purchased by a customer and aggregating that information for alsoboughts and other purposes. And Amazon is going to continue to refine those tools so the customer experience becomes better and better.

      No physical bookstore or chain of physical bookstores can match Amazon’s selection and the discovery tools it offers.

      As others have mentioned, traditional bookstores and traditional publishers are limited to mass market books, some of which are excellent and others not so much (remember Snooki’s books, published by Simon & Schuster, curators of the world’s culture?).

      Amazon and traditional publishers/traditional bookstores are increasingly becoming two separate businesses with much different structures and capabilities. Most, if not all traditional publishers would head for bankruptcy court without their Amazon sales, but Amazon is serving a much larger market than traditional publishers can afford to reach.

      As far as authors are concerned, those with truly mass market appeal may find some benefits with traditional publishers, but I suspect this is not going to be a long-term situation. Right now, James Patterson’s publisher can get a serious sales boost from airport, Costco and Walmart book sales plus prime floor space at Barnes & Noble.

      However, if Amazon continues to capture more and more of the world book market (and, absent government sales bans, I don’t see what will stop them), and as more and more people adopt ebooks (and that’s not stopping either), Patterson, who is a commercially intelligent guy, will reach the point where KDP offers him a better net profit than New York publishing can.

      In the meantime, readers can use physical and digital bookstores according to their personal preferences. However, the number of physical bookstores is headed in only one direction and the number of US consumers living within a 30-minute drive of a traditional bookstore is in terminal decline.

      When considering the long-term trends in bookstore numbers, remember that, seven years ago, the second largest US bookstore chain, Borders, took 399 stores out of the market all at one time when it filed for bankruptcy protection. The number of non-Borders bookstores might have looked a little more stable for a time because 399 competitors disappeared almost overnight, but the total number of US bookstores (particularly of the size of a typical Borders) has (to the best of PG’s knowledge) not gone up by 399 stores or anything even close to that number since 2011.

    • “You don;t really want to understand what I’m saying”

      I could say the same of you. Here.

      “Your point that independent stores can’t provide a truly well-rounded selection of off the beaten path books without stocking SP titles is just silly. There were 300,000 books traditionally published last year. Even the most assiduous buyer would be hard pressed to keep up with a fraction of those without also taking on a million or more SPs without a reliable guide.”

      Which re-enforces my point – traditional bookstores, for practical reasons as you say, have to severely curate the possible universe of books and offer only what they can reasonable sell to a mass market audience.

      However, consumers can access that universe of books and curate for themselves. I do, and so do the hard-core readers that I know. They won’t stand for being pushed back into the (big) box where only curated mass-appeal titles are being offered to them, even if that is the only ‘practical’ thing for a bookstore to do.

      The OP claims that “independent” bookstores are “more important than ever”. Important to whom? Not to readers who have broken out of that narrowcasting business model. As more and more readers do so, bookstores become less and less important. That is my point.

  5. Personally I’m not attracted to any of the things these stores are said to provide. If I wanted the social aspect, which I do not, it is available in many other places, including many libraries. I don’t need or want clerks in bookstores making recommendations. I could go on and on but I won’t. These stores are important to some people, but they are no more important to the community than many other businesses that are no longer with us. They are not charities or non-profits. They are not deserving of protection from the rigours of competition, as has happened in Europe to the great cost of readers there. I expect a few of these stores will survive, but most will perish. The few bookstores that do fit the utopian description in the article will survive if there are enough customers happy to pay for the service.

    I have no problem with the article as a lament or even a plea for readers to support these stores. I do have a problem with it as part of a lobbying campaign seeking subsidies or new laws protecting them.

  6. I can name a few independent bookstores I hope survive, but since I don’t buy much from them, I don’t give them much hope.

    Whenever I visit a new town, I always check out the bookstores from old habit. A noticeable percentage would do better if they emptied the obligatory bookstore cat’s litter box more often.

    The stores I like have something I want– like a fifty year old Nero Wolfe paperback with a great cover in good condition, or a yellow and crumbling seventy year old Chandler. These places always have a few independently published books, more often than not written by local cranks, printed by a local printer, and riddled with typos and bad grammar, but telling a story that catches my interest from a viewpoint that I can’t find anywhere else.

    These places are doomed. They were doomed the day the owners decided to stock the idiocentric junk that took their fancy and only I and a few other social pariahs like.

    You know what I am beginning to dislike about independent publishing? It’s getting too professional. Covers slick as Alfred Knopf. Edited to perfection. Have independents have turned into their own gatekeepers?

    I think I need a martini. Boodles and just enough Cinzano to taste it, stirred gently (no ice chips thank you), one olive with a pit.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Well, independent publishing is a business.
      The best practitioners will, as in any business, follow the practices known to produce good results. And since the business world is decidedly darwinian, slick, dynamic covers, snappy blurbs and titles, and intriguing summaries are going to excel, survive, and dominate.

      Can’t be helped:

      There is room for quirky, adventurous, oddball narratives because unlike corporate publishing Independents don’t *need* massive sales to survive and each independent gets to define success on their own terms but at the end of each venture success will still be a function of readership.

      People write for many reasons but people publish to be read. (And maybe make some money. Maybe. 😉 )

      Being read is going to be a function of sales and sales are going to be a function of cover, blurb, summary (and price and distribution). Story matters but sadly not as much as the presentation. Great stories poorly packaged languish while less interesting material expertly marketed will succeed.

      This is no different than any other business.

      Again, independents define success on their own terms, but if readership is a part of tbe definition “slick and professional” is going to be part of the process.

      You’ll just have to figure out how to look past the presentation if you want to trawl those waters. 😀

  7. Terrence OBrien

    And that human component is an important part of the literary experience.

    Each consumer decides what the literary experience is. It might include contact with people who take joy in matching reader to writer, or it may specifically exclude them. It depends on each consumer’s personal tastes and references. Nobody gets to decide for everyone.

    • Felix J. Torres

      But, oh, how they try.

    • I went into a gun store once to go shooting. It was the only store with an indoor range. Upon exiting the range I put my Walther P99 (locked in its case) on the counter an asked to buy some ammo. The clerk looked at my Walther, then me, and sneered saying “Real gun owners have Glocks.” Before walking away. I could have argued with him the merrits of a Walther, could have explained my time in the Army and that I could likely shoot the pants off of him. But you know what? Why? As you can imagine, I’ve never gone back to that store. I feel the same way about independent bookstores. One time too many being sneered at by a hipster and I’m just not interested in trying anymore.

      • The most important decision most retailers make is who they hire to work with customers face-to-face, Jeff.

        It’s the bookstore version of the Glock-loving clerk that has turned some people off bookstores.

        While Amazon isn’t in the business, I understand that ammo is a lot cheaper online, too.

  8. I have lived abroad all my adult life and reading books in english is my passion/hobby/obsession. Pre Amazon and pre ebooks, finding books to read was hard and expensive. I have never read as much or as widely as now on my kindle. Basically, I can read anything I want. there are somewhere between 8 and 9 million expat Americans, perhaps 4 million expat English men and women. Most of us are readers and up until 15 years go we only had small english language bookstores in about 4 cities in each country to go to. That’s a lot of readers now satisfied who could never be satisfied before. I say it’s a miracle.

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