Read On: Celebrate Independent Bookstore Day!

April 30, 2016 • 10 min read
Ahmad El-Najjar

Ahmad El-Najjar


Over 400 bookstores nationwide are participating in the second annual Independent Bookstore Day (IBD), Saturday, April 30. IBD celebrates one of a neighborhood’s traditional cultural, social, and intellectual hubs: the local bookstore. If you needed more proof that books make you smarter, look no further, as Independent Bookstore Day has quickly become…well, one for the books. The effort to draw more traffic to indie bookstores was an enormous success its first year. According to IBD’s program director, Samantha Schoech, last year, “[m]ore than 300 of the 400 participating stores reported average sales increases of 70 percent and a significant uptick in foot traffic over a typical day.” The Daily Beast headline on the occasion: Indie Bookstores Are Finally Not Dying. Here in San Francisco, Green Apple Books reported sales up 75 percent over a typical May Saturday.”

The event attracts sponsors like the American Booksellers Association and Penguin Random House, and there are more of them this year. According to Publishers Weekly, “Ingram has joined in, and its support enabled IBD staff to visit the fall regionals to talk with booksellers one-on-one.” Schoech told Publishers, “We are figuring out ways for smaller, slightly more geographically isolated stores to participate. Where larger stores can draw huge authors for big events year round, smaller stores don’t have that pull. In some ways Independent Bookstore Day can be that giant boon for them.” The IBD organization created resources for indie booksellers this year, a “How to Make Bookstore Day a Smashing Success” guide and suggestions for getting the word out.

Independent Bookstore Day isn’t a refutation of electronic media so much as an affirmation of the real, the personal, and the social. And, of course, the wonderful papery, slightly musty smell of a roomful of books. “In a world of tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads,” says the IBD organization, bookstores “are living, breathing organisms that continue to grow and expand.” Independent Bookstore Day began life as California Bookstore Day, which would bring together hundreds of local California booksellers. In 2015, what used to belong to California went national. Now, says the IBD, “bookstores are not a dying anachronism. In fact, there are more of them this year than there were last year.

To call the last two decades rough going for indie booksellers is something of an understatement, but it does look like they’re bouncing back. In the early 2000’s, Amazon was dominating book sales, and big-box book retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble were using economies of scale to price thousands of independent booksellers out of the industry. A little over two decades ago, there were 4,000 independent bookstores in the U.S.; by 2009, that number had dwindled to slightly fewer than 1,600. Today, that number has risen to nearly 2,100 independent booksellers. So, what happened? A lot actually.

Independent Bookstore Day data
Image courtesy of the New York Times

As Amazon was gaining more and more of the booksellers’ market share throughout the 2000’s, big box retailers were also having a heyday. Brick and mortar retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble were consistently pushing out their smaller competitors with prices that indie bookstores just couldn’t compete with.

Yet, throughout the massive shift in consumer purchasing, many independent retailers held on, continuing to attract those customers looking for something more fulfilling than clicking a button or the antiseptic experience of a big box store. In fact, the attractions of local bookstores were so powerful that many of the big box bookstores actually end up failing.

In 2010, hundreds of Borders Books began closing as well as many of the other similar chains that had been established. Borders would eventually sigh its last breath in 2011 as all of its locations closed. It’s easy to paint the big box book stores as the bogeyman of independent booksellers, but Borders began as a small business in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with two brothers and a dream. The business model, however, was flawed. People shopped at Borders the same way they did at a traditional independent bookseller: a lot of browsing and a little buying. It’s a model that works for smaller businesses that don’t employ 19,500 workers and have hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space to pay for. When it came to a sustainable business model that could be scaled up, many big box bookstores just couldn’t compete with what comes naturally to the neighborhood bookstore.

Online giants Amazon and Barnes & Noble are still standing; though for B&N, the future is not looking particularly bright. And the period was disastrous for many small booksellers. Many were forced to close in the 2000s as the big box retailers’ and Amazon’s low prices and growth in the ebook market were drawing away customers. The independent booksellers that weathered the storm have come out stronger and continue to be an inspiration for hundreds of their peers who have joined the community since a rebound in growth beginning in 2009.

Why the success? It’s pretty simple. Independent booksellers are cornering the market in an area where online retailers and big box stores just can’t compete. In the words of one of last year’s Independent Bookstore Day celebrants, “Many local bookstores are offering themselves up as cultural hubs and hot spots bent on connecting intellectually minded townsfolk wherever they roam.” This is something that neither a big box store nor an online retailer can offer a reader: independent booksellers offer an experience and sense of community that can only be found locally.

Bookstores like Brooklyn’s Word are great examples of bookstores putting community first. Word offers not only a carefully selected array of books, but they also regularly host community events, book signings with local authors, kids’ programs, and even a café. It’s not just a place to buy a book, it’s a place to experience the neighborhood and the people who live there. I admit I’m one of those residents as well as a patron of this lovely Greenpoint gem. When I walk into Word, I know I’m leaving with a book even if I have no idea what I’m looking for. Ask a staff person what’s good, and they take the time to find out a little about what you like. What’s the last book you read? Will this be a subway book or a beach book?

Even when I ask for something with lasers or dragons, the staff can tell me about the best dragon or laser books they’ve read themselves or that have been recommended by other customers, no literary shaming involved. And, when I’m not indulgently reliving my awkward teenage years through literature, there is absolutely nothing more adorable then the kids’ reading hours nor as interesting as the thought-provoking readings hosted at Word.

Pike Place books Seattle

But it’s not just community that’s driving the revival of independent booksellers. It’s also a keen business sense that comes from really knowing your customers. Take Townsquared NYC member Sarah McNally, whose business, McNally Jackson Books, places customer experience above all. McNally understands the value of a lifetime customer, and her business model reflects that. McNally Jackson Books not only has 55,000 volumes of over 8,000 titles on hand in their Manhattan location, but it also sports a café and even a print-on-demand setup with the impressive (and patented) Espresso Book Machine, a workhorse which can publish any pdf input into a beautiful, color-covered paperback format in less than seven minutes. This trifecta of customer satisfaction ensures that her customers can always find the book they want—if it’s not on the shelf, they’ll print it!—read in the shop over a hot coffee, and be part of a vibrant, bustling community in the heart of NYC, where the next person walking in could be a tourist or a world-famous author. It’s a business model that is inspiring not only entrepreneurs looking to turn a new page and enter the bookseller market, but for McNally herself, who is expanding into Williamsburg in 2017. (Congratulations, Sarah!)

Technology is certainly changing the way independent booksellers are competing for new readers and customers. While it may have seemed like the enemy at first, technology can also be the independent bookseller’s friend. Many independent booksellers have partnered with IndieBound, which has created an online alternative to Amazon. By partnering with independent booksellers and e-reader manufacturer Kobo, IndieBound offers a program whereby you can register your Kobo device with your favorite local bookstore and part of the purchase price of any book purchased from Kobo’s online store, which boasts 4 million titles, ends up in your local bookstore’s pocket. Programs like this, which allow customers purchasing ebooks to still support their local bookstores, are a big draw for independent booksellers looking to create lasting relationships with their communities and customers.

Many of the participating bookstores this year are hosting events including happy hours and readings with favorite authors. The Independent Bookstore Day organization has offered a few exclusive books for indie shops, including The Neil Gaiman Coloring Book, a set of essays by Ann Patchett, and an illustrated print of instructions to make the perfect burger, signed by Anthony Bourdain. This year IBD also has its first Author Ambassador, Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.

Some indie booksellers get more creative with freebies and events. Last year, Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Mont., who reported a 57 percent sales increase on IBD, “gave away free books on the street to draw people in and set up activity stations, including a crafts area for kids and a writing space with a typewriter.” The shop owner pointed out that these were especially useful as, once they were set up, they didn’t require much work on the part of her small staff.

Indie bookstores inspire customer loyalty, and create community cultural hubs and bastions of independence. For those of us lucky enough to have a local bookstore, it’s an integral part of our lives and neighborhoods. Independent Bookstore Day is not just a testament to the passion of booksellers but to their customers who support them through good times and bad.

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