Independent bookstores are making a comeback by not selling books

Independent bookstores are finding new and innovative ways to survive and grow in a highly competitive book market. Photo: (AP Photo) Wine bar patrons

DOTHAN, AL, March 20, 2013 ─ The good news is that independent bookstores are making a comeback. The bad news is that not all of them sell just books anymore.

Two decades ago there were still over 4,000 independents in business and nearly three quarters of them were closed by the new millennium. The rise of chain bookstores, online retailers and huge discount stores nearly obliterated the little neighborhood bookstore on the corner. Gone were squeaky wooden floors, dimly lit book stacks and secluded spots were you could peruse quietly for hours. The new normal was all about volume selling, discounts, bright lights and browsing by computer.

Browsing by computer? No way. There simply is no such thing. Those who are too young to know the joy of selecting books with the five senses rather than a mouse click are missing something. Hopefully now they will get a chance to find out why their elders are so passionate about ink and paper. It should be added that browsing at a big chain store like Barnes & Noble or Border’s comes close to the real thing, but something is still missing. What could that be? Oh, right ─ people, but not just ordinary people ─ book people. They are a special breed and we have missed them.

 Aside from loving books more than life itself, book people are also a determined lot and that is a primary reason why independent bookstores are on the rise again. Between 2009 and 2012, the total number of independents rose from 1,400 stores to around 1,900. Last year, sales at the small shops rose more than 8 percent over 2011. That is good news for everyone. Part of that is attributable to the buy local movements around the nation.

The bad news, however, is that independents have had to introduce non-book services and products to survive. Many shops now offer coffee, wine and cheese, gift items and local training classes. Savvy owners use social media to reach out to the community to get involved in local affairs and causes. In some places, the local bookstore has become a meeting place, a sort of mini-community center. Whatever it takes to survive.

If the little guys can find ways to survive, why are the big chains shuttering stores? Border’s had a massive shutdown over the past few years, Barnes & Noble announced recently it will close stores and other chains like Books-A-Million are scrambling hard to stay even. Do you remember the story of the Spanish Armada and how it was defeated by the smaller, more agile English ships in the narrow English Channel?

That is part of the book selling story. Big chains are built on a specific business model and don’t vary from it. Border’s executives admitted they were mired in outdated process and couldn’t adapt and change to market conditions. Barnes & Noble, rather than focusing on what it does best - run brick and mortar stores - decided to go head-to-head with Amazon in the e-book market. And they are losing. They just announced they are pulling back on some aspects of their Nook program.

The publishing industry itself is already in turmoil, and now book selling is a crap shoot as well. Razor-thin profit margins, bullying by giant discounters, cheap online pricing and the shift to digital e-books have all converged into a giant mash-up that will take a few more years to sort out.

In the meantime, a niche exists for independent stores to take advantage of by re-introducing book people into the equation. Shoppers still like being helped by knowledgeable sales people who know authors and titles, and who can answer questions and find arcane volumes. If you doubt any of that, try going to Sam’s Club and asking whether they have back stock for Jodi Picoult and see what reaction you get.

Amazon now controls a whopping 27% of the book market in America, up from 20% just in the past year. Part of that success comes from a consumer phenomenon called showrooming, which is the practice of examining merchandise at a store then ordering it online at a cheaper price. So, Amazon has managed to use Barnes & Noble, which lost 2% of the market in 2012, as their product display room while taking the actual sales. Ouch.

Independents only represent about six percent of the total book market these days, but that is up a whole percentage point from 2011. The big boys don’t seem to notice or care that independents are sliding back into the picture.

All is not entirely rosy in independent land. A group of three independent bookstores recently started a class action lawsuit against Amazon and the six major publishers charging them with making trade restrictive exclusive e-book deals. Then there is the whole issue of DRM, short for digital rights management, which is the technical system that prevents copying and sharing e-book formats. Unlike print, a market for used e-books is virtually non-existent. Digital publishing has created utter havoc in the book market.

It’s all enough to drive a bookseller to drink and, in fact, that’s just what some booksellers are doing. The Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar in Asheville, NC, where this writer lived for some years, is a popular watering hole for locals and tourists alike. However, over three quarters of their sales are from beverages and food, not books. Still, it’s a great concept and the idea of browsing actual printed books with a glass in hand of vintage Bordeaux is quite appealing.

Barnes & Noble’s executives, are you paying attention? Amazon might be able to undercut your book prices, but they can’t serve wine and cheese. Just a suggestion.


(Each week Rick will cover various topics and issues from the world of books and publishing. For even more, be sure to subscribe to his newsletter blog at 

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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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