The Success of Local Bookstores

For those of you concerned about the state of print books and local bookstores, the Washington Post a couple of days ago ran a heartening story.  Apparently local new and used bookstores are thriving.

The American Booksellers Association, the national trade organization for independently owned bookstores, counted a 7 percent growth last year and has gained 100 new members i n the past six months. The association now counts 1,830 member stores across the country, up by 400 since 2005, according to Meg Smith, the association’s spokeswoman. The new stores have opened in at least 35 states, from New York to California, an indication that store owners across the nation see an opportunity to find a concrete niche in the e-book world.

The article attributes that to a couple of things.  First, the demise of competitor Borders; but second and more importantly, the important niche that local bookstores fill in a community, and the ways that local bookstores are adapting to changing needs. These bookstores are succeeding because they aren’t gigantic and impersonal, and because people want to spend their money in small, locally-run businesses.

In the District, Politics and Prose, which looked like it might go out of business last year when its longtime owners were retiring, is thriving under new management. In Richmond, the landmark Narnia bookstore underwent a similar transformation late last year, reborn as Bbgb under new owners Jill Stefanovich and Jenesse Evertson. In Nashville, author Ann Patchett and business partner Karen Hayes are gearing up to open Parnassus Books this fall. And in Hawthorne, N.J., a former Internet technology consultant named Bill Skees has been sitting behind the counter at Well Read, his very own store, for the past 10 months.

“From a financial perspective, it was a step down to open a bookstore, but it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” he says.

As many of you already know, a local bookstore isn’t just a place to buy books.  We can do that on Amazon, or on our e-readers.  It’s a place to talk about books, to meet about books, to find out about new books.  It’s also a place to buy a cup of coffee, or taste wine, or buy a gift for a friend.  It’s a place to join book clubs and hear authors read.

Some of those things we can do online, and for some things, let’s be honest, the Internet does it better.  When I worked in a bookstore, for example, the most important part of my job (after helping you find the aisle you’re looking for) was to say, “if you like this, try this.”  Or, if you only sort of know an author’s name or half of a title, I could help you find what you were looking for.  Does Amazon do those things better than I did?  Sure.

I also love that I can go online and read hundreds of reviews of a book I want to read.  Or compare the overall score of one book to another if I’m really undecided.

But book clubs?  I was so excited about the concept of Goodreads, a place where I could pick and choose my book clubs from hundreds, not just be forced to read the book that a group of friends want to read (which is never a book I want to read).  But the online book club hasn’t worked for me.

So if Amazon, e-readers and independent bookstores can peaceably coexist, that makes me happy.  I want the community bookstore, and I’ll still buy things there even if I mostly use my Kindle.  I love the idea of a bookstore as a meeting place or a place to try new things like gourmet chocolates or cheese.  I want the community bookstore to thrive, and I hope it does.

Still, while the article was a happy surprise, it was also a punch in the gut.  That bookstore is my fantasy, and other people are doing it.  I could do it, if I had the nerve and the determination — if I wasn’t so afraid that my love for e-reading, and this horrible economy, makes it utter madness to open a bookstore.

The article is careful to point out that these bookstores are paying the bills, not making any real money.  But that’s okay with most of the owners.

There’s a used bookstore down our street that we joke about being a drug front — only not really.  It’s in this odd location, it’s terribly unappealing to look at, and no one is ever seen going in or out (it’s the Wonka factory of bookstores).  And that’s the place I drive past most days when I’m wishing for my bookstore.  Not the stores described in this article.

Interestingly, the New York Times ran an article last week about how all those people who open their “fantasy businesses” end up working twice as hard and having many more times the stress.  But are they happier in the end?

I don’t know.  I have plenty of conflicted feelings about opening a business, and I have no illusions about the time it takes, the stress, and the financial risk.  I wish I could take that leap, though.

3 Comments on “The Success of Local Bookstores

  1. Opening a bookstore is my dream too…but I worked in two independent bookstores when I was in high school, one used, and they were both kind of that “Wonka factory” sort of bookstore you describe. They weren’t unappealing to look at, but there weren’t a lot of people going in or out, which was endlessly frustrating to me because the used bookstore has a great selection and unusually low prices, maybe a quarter of the cover price. (When I went home on vacation, that was the only bookstore I visited and was totally happy with – found what I was looking for, felt at home, was happy with the price.)

    When I heard about the Borders liquidation I started to hope that it would be something good for the indies. I guess my fear is that a lot of those stores were the only bookstores in their area, and that nothing is going to move in to take their place. Unless some people who share our nuts dream of running a bookstore actually act on it.

  2. Maybe you should just spruce up Wonka’s drugfront to make it a community destination! Thanks so much for your thoughtful and content-rich post on this important subject.
    I live in a community that sports more independent bookstores (used and new) per capita than anyplace I can think of, and has one of the most active library systems per capita in the country, so my long-ago dream of opening a bookstore has slowly floated away. I suspect it’s because the need’s more than met where I live, and my psyche’s thirst has thus been quenched. Perhaps your own dream is a signal that your townsfolk – and all those books just longing to be read – need you!

  3. Like you and Ellen and I’m sure a lot of other book bloggers, I would love to open a bookstore, though I lack both the means to start something and the knowledge of how to really run a business. But it is encouraging to hear that indie bookstores are seeing growth.

    I love this post and the fact that this isn’t an indictment of the big box stores, e-readers or Amazon and the hope that these along with indie bookstores can all exist together. Hopefully that is the case.

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