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Why Indie Bookstores Are on the Rise Again

30 September 2014

From Slate:

The recent news of the opening of an independent bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was greeted with surprise and delight, since a neighborhood once flush with such stores had become a retail book desert. The opening coincides with the relocation of the Bank Street Bookstore near Columbia University, leading the New York Times to declare, “Print is not dead yet — at least not on the Upper West Side.”

Two stores don’t constitute a trend, but they do point to a quiet revival of independent bookselling in the United States. They also underscore the shifting sands of physical bookselling, where the biggest losers are not—as was once assumed—the independent booksellers, but rather the large book chains.
Only a few years ago, observers projected that the rise of chain stores and Amazon would lead to the vast shrinkage of independent bookstores.

. . . .

The short answer is that by listing their shares as public companies, both Borders and Barnes & Noble were drawn into a negative vortex that destroyed the former and has crippled the latter. Not only did they become public companies, but they positioned themselves as high-growth companies, focused on innovation and disruption. That forced them to compete with the growth company par excellence in their space: Amazon. It also forced them to pursue high sales volume at the expense of inventories. Those strategies, as it turned out, were precisely wrong for the actual business they were in: selling books to a selective audience. Which is precisely what independent bookstores are good at.

. . . .

Barnes & Noble opened more superstores as well, but it also decided to challenge Amazon by developing the Nook at a cost of more than $1 billion.

The results were disastrous. Barnes & Noble bled money; it just announced earnings with yet another quarter of losses and declining revenue. Amazon dominated because it could spend far more money on technology than the chains, and because its core competency was in the disruptive technologies of e-readers, distribution, and inventory management. Amazon was never seen primarily as a retailer, and hence it could carry massive inventories that were a drag on its earnings and then spend billions on research and development because investors accepted Amazon’s narrative that it was a disruptive technology company redefining how everything is sold, not just books.

. . . .

Independent bookstores never had to answer to the dictates of public markets. Many of their proprietors understood, intuitively and from conversations with customers, that a well-curated selection—an inventory of old and new books—was their primary and maybe only competitive advantage. In the words of Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, “The indie bookselling amalgam of knowledge, innovation, passion, and business sophistication has created a unique shopping experience.”

. . . .

Amazon’s sales have been strongest in mass-market fiction. No independent bookstore could thrive on mass-market softcover sales.  Instead, they do well with hardcovers, illustrated children’s books, cookbooks, and the like. And while indies cannot compete with Amazon’s inventory, Amazon evidently cannot supplant indies as shopping and social experiences.
The independent stores will never be more than a niche business of modest sales and very modest profitability. But the same is true for many small businesses, which makes them no less vital.

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Larry for the tip.


26 Comments to “Why Indie Bookstores Are on the Rise Again”

  1. Half Price Book stores are ubiquitous in Texas. I have no data, but they seem to be busy and there’s always a line at the checkout at the six stores I frequent. I’d venture to say that most people that take a couple of boxes of books in for sale, get $20, and spend it, plus a few more dollars.

    • One thing about HPB stores (I live near one in CA) is that people go in with boxes of books and think they will make a killing, having added up all the money that they originally cost. The buy-back amount is usually a real shocker, not to mention that some of the books are returned to the seller because the store won’t even take them. The country is absolutely awash in used paper books – they aren’t worth much. Look at the Yelp reviews for any given HPB and scroll around until you see some seller reviews. Poor saps.

      The stock is uneven, but you can often find ‘gems’ – interesting books that barely show up on Amazon because of age.

      • We were cleaning the garage the other day and came across several boxes of magazines* and some random books that neither of us even wanted (which was why they were still packed from the move and not in the library.) I took them to HPB and said, “I have a proposition for you. You take these boxes of magazines and books, give me back the cart I used to bring them in, and I go away.” I got over my “what do you mean, it’s only worth a quarter?” phase a long time ago. 🙂

        They wouldn’t do it, and in fact I ended up getting $5. (I’d rather have had the time I had to wait.) But if there wasn’t a thousand dollars or more worth of books and magazines in that pile, I’ll eat my Kindle. Don’t care. It’s a buyer’s market.

        *Look ’em up, kids, they’re what we had before we had blogs and how-to websites.

        • On a side note, apropos of very little, but I haven’t bought or read a print magazine in several years (I loathe paying for ads). The other day I leafed through some magazines at my daughter-in-law’s house and it STANK. It smelled offensively horrible and the odor just rolled off the pages. Have magazines always smelled this bad and I just never noticed before, or are they using some kind of new ink? As an experiment, the last time I was in Walmart I sniffed a few mmpb books. The odor didn’t waft off the page the way it does with magazines, but they smelled pretty rank, too. Ick.

          • They did change the composition of printer’s ink some years ago. I believe the official excuse was that they were getting rid of those terrible petroleum-based chemicals and switching to nice, vegetable-based, environmentally friendly renewable materials. Part of the concern about the old inks seems to have been that they did not biodegrade in landfills. It would appear that the new inks can begin to biodegrade long before they make it to a landfill.

      • The country is absolutely awash in used paper books – they aren’t worth much.

        In terms of general reading, genre reading, I’d say you’re right. It’s when you look for specific books that there are outliers.

        “Red Adam’s Lady” by Grace Ingram, for example. My wife’s favorite book. One book’s available for about six bucks and change. The rest start at $20-plus.

        Books from university presses tend to be higher as well, because they were printed in limited runs.

        • I loved Red Adam’s Lady, she has great taste! Mine was a birthday gift back in my high school days and it’s still in the good condition range.

        • Oh, I love, love, love Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram. Time to re-read. Luckily, I have a paperback copy…somewhere. Hmmm. Time to go digging for it. Too bad there’s not a kindle edition. 🙁

          • Indeed, it is too bad about Kindle. I never heard of this book, but now I’m curious. But not $30-for-the-dead-tree-edition curious.

    • We regularly make the rounds of all HPBs in the Chicago, Madison, and Columbus areas, but it’s the last place I’d sell books. We got $15 for a box of 30+ hardcovers, any two of which would bring $15 used on Amazon or eBay. You might as well just leave them in a pile by the front door. HPB bulk sells a lot of mass market paperbacks for pulp to recyclers. Many mass market books go for .01 on Amazon and the only money sellers make is through the standard $3.99 shipping charge. But we rarely leave a HPB empty-handed. It’s a great place for collectors.

  2. I really hope more entrepreneurs, that love books, open up indie bookstores. I love my ebooks and buying from Amazon is super convenient, but I would support a local bookstore that encouraged a community of readers. These indie bookstores need to support indie authors also. Hold signings, discussion groups and book clubs that focus on indie authors as much as established authors.

    • Yes, that’s what Indie stores need to do. Lots of great books disappeared before Amazon and the only way to read them now is as an old paper copy. It was difficult but I finally found a copy of THE BRAMBLE BUSH by David Duncan. Anyone else remember that one?

      • I haven’t read it yet but it’s been on my need to read list for a long time because it keeps coming up in the oddest places that I think I have to get this.

  3. I would support a local bookstore that encouraged a community of readers.

    Me, too. Sadly, my local independent bookstore is too busy publicly bashing Amazon to help loyal readers find good books to read.

  4. I read this a few weeks ago and found some parts lacking. One, why would listing themselves on the stock exchange make a difference? Shares of Borders/B&N began being publicly traded back in 1991-92. That’s when they started expanding rapidly. It seems more likely that gross mismanagement was the source of their problems. Secondly, why did he arbitrarily choose the period of 2000-2007 as being the time period in which 1,000 indie bookstores closed? Why wasn’t it mentioned that 2,400 indie bookstores closed between 1994-2007? Then I realized he sourced his information from ADS House (some call them Melville House). Making it appear that Amazon is mostly to blame for the disappearance of the indie bookstores would fit MHP’s skew on reality far better. Thirdly, was better selection *really* the reason B&N was wiping out those independents? The fact that they priced popular books cheaper than the indies could buy them had nothing to do with it, I’m sure. (Of course, the prices went back up after the competition was eliminated).

    • I was thinking that too. I’ve noticed lately a bit of revisionist history going on with Borders demise. At the time they went down, it was pretty widely accepted it was from horrifically bad management. Now, though, whenever it’s mentioned, Amazon killed them.

    • YES YES YES. I was thinking the same thing, too.

      Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble all have publicly available stock. All have access to the Internet. B and BN could have done exactly what Amazon did.

      Here’s the big conclusion Slate missed: There was no obstacle for Borders and Barnes and Noble to challenge Amazon except their faulty assumption that to do so would cannibalize their print sales.

      They didn’t change, and now one’s dead and the other’s not feeling well lately.

    • It’s gotten to the point that we refer to B&N as the ‘Museum of Contemporary Books’ because the only reason we go there is to check out the new releases and buy a magazine or two. Ninety percent of our reading is on Kindle (mostly), Nook, or Kobo, and the only print books we buy are for gifts, kids, or reference. Amazon and Borders coupon discounts weaned us away from print books yet we still have thousands on shelves and in boxes. With two avid reader/writers in the house, we’d have had to build an addition if we’d continued to buy print.

      • “It’s gotten to the point that we refer to B&N as the ‘Museum of Contemporary Books…”

        Ah, the true culprit that’s beating B&N into the ground…B&N. What’s the point of going to B&N if there’s no selection? People who grab an occasional bestseller will be at the grocery store or Wally World and exclaim “Ooh, Patterson’s latest tome of ghost-written, mind numbing pap!” and they never have need to darken B&N’s door.

  5. There are multiple reasons I don’t intend to patronize any bookshops any time soon:

    1. Prices. Too rich for my blood.

    2. I simply don’t like reading print books anymore. The only time I read print books these days is if I can’t get the book in ebook form.

    3. I made the decision that I will never again support any traditional publishers. If I really, really want to read a book published by a traditional publisher, I either get it from the library or from a used bookseller via Amazon.

  6. Fortune magazine, several page article, in Oct 6 issue on HPB, “Thriving in an Amazon World” where they interview HPB founders daughter who runs the privately owned company.


    • The article has a quote that directly addresses some of what the original post raises…

      Because we are private and don’t have to answer to shareholders, we can expand at our own pace.

      Really, the whole article is awesome.

  7. Many many restaurants are opened every year. And many close.
    Just because a business opens doesn’t mean it succeeds.
    Come back to us in 5 years and tell us if these indie bookstores are still in business.

    • We went to Madison, Wisconsin for a writing conference in 1998 and discovered an unbelievable number of used and independent bookstores. The city even published a tri-fold guide to the used bookstores back then. Every trip we’d hit at least 15-18 on foot in the downtown/campus area alone and come home with 30-40 books. After 2003 they began to disappear, close, merge, relocate, etc. and now we’re lucky to visit 5 or 6 in the whole metropolitan area. (BTW, their B&N is the best we’ve encountered, if you don’t mind chains.)

  8. If you want to see a brick & mortar business that successfully beat off lower-priced online competition take a look at the board game industry and marvel at year-over-year gains for over a decade.

    In the end the secret is creating a strong relationship with the readers, and making the store a social hub.

    Why bookstores aren’t hosting genre -focused reading groups *every night of the week* is beyond me. The fact that book publishers aren’t offering membership perks, contests, and other unique in-store *print* prizing (the way every game company does) is also confusing/maddening to me.

  9. A great example of exactly that, that bookstores could—and should—learn from (but many won’t), of “strong relationships” and “a social hub,” is the board game store called The Enchanted Badger” (http://www.theenchantedbadger.com) in Ithaca, New York. The lessons: locate where your customers are likely to be (Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College), then offer them what they are likely to buy (board games), and finally give them a reason to come to your store. On their website home page one of the first things that you see is the words “Events Calendar.” A little further on you read that they “provide a place to gather and play, with comfy seating…” How many independent bookstores —or any bookstores—do simple stuff like that, and then complain that they can’t stay in business?

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