Indie booksellers create community to survive the age of Amazon

From MPR News:

The seeds for the Zenith Bookstore, which opened in Duluth 2 1/2 years ago, were sown on the streets of Manhattan.

“We used to love walking the streets and visiting bookstores — we’re both big readers,” said Bob Dobrow, who together with his wife, Angel, owns the cozy bookstore on the city’s Central Avenue.

“We were young and in love and full of energy, and we would walk for hours,” recalled Angel Dobrow.

The Dobrows recall casually musing to one another, “Wouldn’t it be fun one day to open a bookstore?”

But they got married and had kids. Bob became a math professor at Carleton College and they moved to Northfield, Minn. When he retired a few years ago, they were packing up boxes and boxes of books, and that idea popped into their heads again.

“It was literally like a bolt of lightning,” Bob Dobrow said.

Never mind that they had never owned any kind of business before, or that people had been predicting the death of small bookstores since Barnes & Noble, Amazon and e-books.

But they moved north to Duluth, depleted their savings to remodel an old liquor store and opened for business on a summer day in 2017.

. . . .

Sales have grown about 60 percent since that first year, he said. The Dobrows attribute that in part to a loyal customer base that is willing to spend a little more on a book to support a local business.

“One of my great fears was that bookstores would go away, so I feel almost a moral obligation to be in bookstores,” said Chris Johnson, an education professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth who stopped by last week to pick up some books for his college-age kids.

“It’s probably not the norm, but I think it’s important to book lovers that such places exist,” he added.

Since bottoming out in 2009, the number of independent booksellers nationwide has grown by about 35 percent. There are now more than 1,900 independent booksellers across the country, who together operate more than 2,500 stores.

. . . .

First, there’s the Buy Local movement, which he said indie bookstores helped create.

“Booksellers are deeply embedded in helping to define this notion of why the consumer should shop local,” he explained.

Then there’s what Raffaelli calls “curation.”

“If you see a great bookseller at his or her craft, you’ll see them ask questions like, ‘What are the last five books that you read?’ And then they’ll steer a reader into a genre potentially that is outside [what they’d normally read],” he said. “But they say, ‘This is your next great book.’”

That expertise and experience enables booksellers to compete against the algorithms Amazon uses to recommend books, he said.

. . . .

And then there’s this: Many bookstores have made themselves much more than just booksellers. They’re also community gathering places.

. . . .

“It’s a business with razor-thin profits,” said Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer with the American Booksellers Association. “I don’t want to be a Pollyanna because on the one hand, there’s been solid success. But on the other hand, it’s a challenging road ahead of them as well.”

He said many bookstores face escalating rents and struggle to pay living wages and benefits to their employees.

Link to the rest at MPR News and thanks to Nate for the tip.

PG notes that, if you’ve ever been in Duluth in the winter as he has, you’ll understand why people would be attracted to any place that’s warm.

That said, PG is pleased that The Dobrows have made their bookstore work and hope they can continue to do so.

Speaking of winter, PG just checked and the average low temperature in Duluth in January is 4 degrees Fahrenheit and the city receives about 70 inches of snow per year. Since it is located on the shores of Lake Superior, bracing winds are also a feature of Duluth winters.

One additional feature of Minnesota winters that will not be familiar to most Floridians is that virtually every car and truck you see has an electric cord hanging out of the grill. The cord leads to an engine block heater which is plugged in every night to make sure various liquids in the engine don’t freeze (radiators) or transform into a thick viscous mess (oil) overnight.

OTOH, PG understands that these weather conditions don’t sound very impressive to TPV regulars who live in Canada.