The Outlook for Bookstores

The news about the health of bookstores has been pretty downbeat during the last couple of years.  Between 2000 and 2007 about 1,000 independent booksellers closed.  I was therefore pleased to see an article in Independent, the journal of the Independent Book Publishers Association.  The article, by Linda Carlson, was pretty full of good news, but somewhat lacking in statistics.

The one statistic which was reported: according to an article published in Slate, the membership of the American Booksellers Association increased more than 20% from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014.  While 20% is a substantial increase, the average annual increase is about 5%.  Still, this is healthy growth.  To put this increase in perspective, Donna Paz Kaufman, an industry consultant is quoted as saying: “Fewer entrepreneurs are stepping forward to own independent bookstores, even at a time when many communities throughout the country long to replace a Borders or Barnes & Noble store that proved too large to be sustainable.”  She goes on to say that some would-be entrepreneurs have family members who are risk-averse and cannot justify investing the family’s wealth in “something that still seems iffy”.  My impression is that the apparent ‘growth’ in ABA membership is actually the renewal of lapsed membership, rather than new members. Nonetheless, this is a good sign.

So, what is driving the improvement in outlook for independent bookstores?  Shane Gotwalls, of Gotwalls Books in Macon, Georgia says, “Feedback from our customers tell us that they are tired of impersonal on-line shopping. . . . We hear more and more often that there’s nothing like the smell of a bookstore. . . . We try to give the best service possible, and we believe our customers keep returning because we are successful with this goal.”

WinterRiver Books in Oregon has kept its sales from slipping with a policy of discounting hardcover editions of best sellers by 20%.

Mirian Sontz, CEO of Powell’s bookstores in Portland, Oregon says that the store sold almost 10,000 copies, prepublication, of Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, after Hatchette authors Stephen Colbert and Sherman Alex recommended, on air, that it be purchased from Powell’s in response to the Amazon-Hachette conflict!  Sontz says, “The conversation about conscious on-line shopping continues, thanks to this increased awareness.”

Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse in La Canada, California reports that they provide core literature for the La Canada school district.  “We work very closely with public school faculty and staff and we stock titles on required reading lists.”  Flintridge also emphasizes local history, geography, and culture of the San Gabriel Mountain foothills.

Espresso Book Machines are a drawing card for several bookstores which have them.  While only a fraction of the inquiries received by the bookstores result in orders, many writers who use the machines return again and again for additional print runs.

Other tactics for drawing people into bookstores include hosting story hours for kids and YA book clubs.  Some bookstores offer tickets to author events.  The ticket may require a book purchase or offer a discount.  Elliott Bay Books now hosts 500 events a year and says that “events keep us in mind as a cool place to visit . . . but having customers buy books in order to attend can backfire by discouraging people from attending.”

In summary, each successful indie bookstore seems to have its own special identity and offerings which appeal to local customers.  It offers personal service to frustrated on-line customers, and the touch, feel and smell of actual books!

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