How Indie Bookstores are Thriving

atkins-bookshelf-booksThere is something deeply nostalgic about small, independent bookstores — they evoke the memories of exploring the shelves, amidst creaking wooden floors and the rich aroma of old books, in search of some literary treasure, opening the door to an entirely new world. In his essay, “The Death of the Bookstore was Greatly Exaggerated” Lev Grossman believes that part of the appeal of indie bookstore is that in addition to nostalgia, there is something melancholy about them. They beckon you, as if to say “visit me before I disappear forever” as you walk by their storefronts.

Grossman observes, “Ironically, that reputation may have contributed to an unexpected plot twist, which is that independent bookstore are actually really healthy.” Sales at indie bookstores account for 10% of all books sold. In May 2016, the American Booksellers Association announced that the number of member stores increased from 1,400 in 2009 to 2,311 today in the U.S.  Sadly, across the pond, the number of indie bookstores — er, bookshops — decreased by 3%.  The only big box book retailer left standing, Barnes & Noble decreased number of stores from 726 to 640 beginning in 2009. Sales at the book chain have slowly decreased each year since 2012. However, over in the virtual world, online book retailers have seen an increase of 5% in 2015.

So what explains the rise of the humble indie bookstore? Grossman believes there are several reasons — tangible and intangible: “New technology makes things like accounting and inventory management easier for small stores. The growth of social media makes it easier to promote events. The demise of the Borders chain in 2011 had the effect, in some markets, of taking competitive pressure off indies.” Indie bookstores also offer something Amazon cannot: author events and knowledgeable, helpful, passionate booksellers. As Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, explained, “We are still here because stores play a real role in their community, and [dozens] of times a day they are putting the right book into someone’s hand.”

Another reason is that the level of growth of e-books has flat-lined and even declined a bit. Grossman elaborates: “After Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, e-books began a relentless conquest of the book market, from 9% of unit sales in 2010 to 28% in 2013… [In 2015], the share of e-books actually receded to 24%. The books market appears to have rebalanced itself into a complex mix of paper and digital, with neither format completely dominating, and plenty of room for brick-and-mortar retailers.

Interestingly, visiting and browsing brick-and-mortar bookstores remains the preferred method of discovering books according to a recent Nielsen survey. It confirms what all bibliophiles intuitively know — that holding a book in your hands and reading or skimming it is much more effective than clicking “Look Inside” or reviewing suggestions via “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.”

The rise of the indie bookstore has been keenly noted by Amazon. In November 2015, Amazon opened a brick-and-mortar bookstore, named Amazon Books, in University Village in Seattle. Amazon recently announced the opening of a second store in Westfield UTC in San Diego that will open by fall. The stores offer a limited selection of Amazon’s bestsellers and serve as showrooms for the Kindle, Fire TV, Fire Tablets, and Echo. Industry experts guess that Amazon will open as few as 12 stores to perhaps hundreds of stores in the near future.

Read related posts: What Causes Old Book Smell?
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
The Sections of a Bookstore
Strange Bookmarks Found Inside Books
The Library Without Books
Who Were Barnes and Noble?
Types of Book Readers

For further reading:
Time Magazine, “The Death of the Bookstore was Greatly Exaggerated” by Lev Grossman, July 11-18, 2016.

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