Even as Barnes & Noble began sending proxy notices in anticipation of a shareholder fight with investor Ron Burkle and publishers continued to grapple with new business models for e-books, an interesting media meme is emerging: that there are unique opportunities for indie booksellers in a society of hyper-connectivity and technological saturation.
Earlier in the month, New York magazine reported that “against all odds, a small army of neighborhood bookshops has arrived” and noted that, despite the closing of some of the city’s bookselling institutions (including the Gotham Book Mart and Madison Avenue Bookshop), New York was “suddenly, unexpectedly in the midst of an indie-bookstore renaissance.” Among the stores covered were Greenlight Bookstore, which shared its financial data with the magazine, Boulevard Books, BookCourt, Book Culture, St. Mark's Bookshop, Hue-Man Bookstore, McNally Jackson, Brownstone Books, Books of Wonder, Idlewild Books, Bluestockings, WORD, and Posman Books.
New York cited both the growing influence of the Local First movement and consumers’ desire for “a more human-scale shopping experience” as spurs for the growth in indie bookselling, which was being led by “a new, perhaps quixotic generation of entrepreneurs.”
On the national scene, this month Portfolio.com surveyed industry trends and news updates – B&N’s falling sales, the growing market share of big box discounters like Walmart, Amazon.com’s competitive advantage gained from refusing to collect state sales tax – and asked, “Do these stories leave an opening for small businesses?” The piece also cited the growing importance of localism to consumers and, importantly, the inherent abilities of smaller entrepreneurs to respond quickly and effectively to business conditions and trends.
Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, noted, “This whole Shop Local movement that is going on around the country. It’s a movement that has really caught steam. That’s something we’ve got that Barnes & Noble and Amazon don’t have,” as reported by Portfolio.com. And in a story published in the Syracuse Post-Standard, Bill Reilly, co-owner of The River's End Bookstore in Oswego, New York, ascribed much of his store’s success to responding to customers’ needs. “We’re not wed to a corporate dictate so we have freedom and flexibility in the books we feature,” he said. “The big guys’ shelf space is spoken for and purchased by publishers who are pushing blockbuster titles.”
ABA CEO Oren Teicher noted in the Syracuse Post-Standard story that the “extraordinary knowledge and passion about books and their ability to discern the right book to put into the customer’s hand” has allowed indies to provide unparalleled customer service and to meet unique needs and wants.
This month, Greenlight Bookstore co-owner Jessica Stockton Bagnulo said in a Reuters story, headlined “U.S. Neighborhood Bookstores Thrive in Digital Age,” that “people are rediscovering the value of an independent store that’s connected to their neighborhood and understands them and their tastes.”
In a society that’s increasingly enmeshed in an online grid of social networks and media connectivity, for many, the complex algorithms and lines of code behind the recommendations of web-based retailers have not replaced the retail synthesis of critical judgment, literary acumen, and professional passion offered by indie booksellers.
As James B. Stewart wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Despite the array of suggestions tailored to my interests (or at least to my recent purchases) that appear when I open the Amazon site, I still yearn for someone intelligent who can recommend a good book. I enjoy the community of other people who love books. I like talking to someone both before buying a book and after reading it.” Stewart asked the question “Could B&N’s decline pave the way for the return of the independent bookseller?” and noted, “I think independent bookstores may be able to provide these services even while selling over the Internet.”
Independents are already selling e-books, and when Google Editions launches they will be selling even more, but, technology aside, many in the industry believe the long-range strategic advantage for indies will be rooted in their traditional strengths, which will find renewed appeal in an evolving social and technological context. “In the future, bookstores will sell digital, as well as print content,” ABA’s Teicher noted to the Denver Post in a recent story. “Putting the appropriate book in the customer’s hands is still the particular skill of the independent bookseller. Having the passion, knowledge, and skill to do that gives independents an advantage over online sellers. I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna-ish or naïve, but what has kept bookstores solvent until now is the recipe for success in the future.”