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Why All the Fuss About "Independent" Bookstores?

Posted: 10/13/09 07:12 AM ET

Recently we were invited to sell books at a sustainability conference being held at a fancy hotel in San Francisco.  The conference had attracted hundreds of young professionals pursuing careers in sustainability.  One young woman walked over to our table to buy Van Jones’ book.  Looking at the Booksmith sign on our table, she enquired “What’s Booksmith?”  My colleague responded “We are an independent bookstore based here in San Francisco.”  The customer looked puzzled.  After a minute, she nervously asked “What is an independent bookstore?”  There is a significant segment of people (many of them from the new coming-of-age generation) who don’t know or perhaps fully appreciate what a local “independent” bookstore is!  For them, a bookstore equates to a national chain like Barnes & Noble or a regional chain like Books, Inc., or perhaps Amazon.com. 

We started writing this week about why independent bookstores have to reinvent themselves, but then it occurred to us that we ought to step back and first discuss what an independent bookstore is.  When we assumed stewardship of our independent bookstore the Booksmith over two years ago, we only had a vague notion of what independent bookstores actually do.  It’s taken us that time to delve deeply and clearly articulate the defining attributes of a good independent bookstore.  If you’ve heard of City Lights in San Francisco, Politics & Prose in Washington DC, or Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, then you probably would recognize an “independent” bookstore when you see one.  But to understand what differentiates them, one must examine what business are independent bookstores in – trust us, it’s much more than a place that sells books.  After all nowadays you can buy a book just about anywhere (probably more conveniently and certainly more cheaply) from your grocery store to Amazon.com.  So, why all the fuss about independent bookstores? 

We have discovered that independent bookstores are appreciated for essentially these three reasons:

  1. They Provide a Cultural Experience for Readers:  Like a wine sommelier, good independent booksellers are valued by readers for their thoughtfully curated selection of books and personalized service.  Good independent bookstores facilitate discovery of new books and provide a life-long means of education and learning for their customers.  Engaging author events is another critical piece of providing a rich cultural experience for readers.  Recently, we were talking with Carla Cohen from Politics and Prose Bookstore and she said “We are known by the books we recommend and the authors we present.  We are able to weed out the silly, the trivial, the wildly exaggerated, the copy-cat, and present our customers with a choice of books worth buying. Worth buying because they are well researched or well written or amusing or beautiful or helpful.”  Culture thrives with diversity and independent bookstores enhance diversity by representing a plurality of viewpoints. 
  2. They Provide a Nurturing Environment for Lesser Known and Emerging Writers:  Independent booksellers are valued by authors (and their publishers) for their skill at promoting new books and emerging writers.  When MacKenzie Bezos, wife of Jeff Bezos (yes THE Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com) wrote her first book a few years ago, she went on a book tour that included Village Books in Bellingham, Washington to promote the book.  Dee Robinson, co-owner of Village Books told us “It’s a good book, we promoted it with the same passion and commitment we put behind any of our author events, and we had a good crowd for her talk.”  She also added “Jeff came with her, he was very nice.”  Early in our tenure at the Booksmith, we were puzzled by why publishers would care much about independent bookstores.  After all, independents represent only about 10% of the overall market and we thought surely it’s got be a whole lot easier for publishers to sell to one buyer at Borders or Amazon and get a huge sale for their book, compared to calling on hundreds of little bookstores none of which will buy that many copies of a book.  So, we asked Paul Kozlowski and Ruth Liebmann of publishing house Random House.  We were astounded by what they told us.  They said Random House had done studies and found that in many cases independents represented 30-50% of a new book’s sales in the first 3-6 months after it’s release.  So, what explains this three to five times higher market share in the crucial early stages of a new book's life cycle?  An independent bookseller’s ability to personally read the book, discern who would appreciate it, and promote it to their customers one at a time.  In bookseller lingo, we call this handselling.  There are countless stories of unknown writers enjoying success set afire by the passionate handselling of an independent bookseller.  At bookseller conferences they give awards for this stuff.
  3. They Enable Positive Social Change in Local Communities:  Another function independent bookstores have historically served has less to do with books, and more to do with thought leadership and good citizenship.  Many independent booksellers have been the catalysts of enabling positive social changes in their communities.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and stood trial to defend Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Andy Ross’ bookstore was pipe-bombed because he stood up for freedom of speech, and more recently Tattered Cover took the federal government to court to defend a customer’s privacy rights and has since been active in the battle to reverse provisions of the Patriot Act.  Independent bookstores organize fundraisers for local schools, fund community activities, and bring their communities together to address local issues.  Booksellers like Betsy Burton of King’s English in Salt Lake City and Steve Bercu of Book People in Austin are widely known as leaders in the growing movement to strengthen our local economies.

It seems to us that independent booksellers are not in the same business as Amazon.com and the chain stores.  They are in a much broader business – it’s the business of building community.  Successful independent bookstores use their love and knowledge of books to build community just like a contractor uses bricks and wood to build a house.  You can buy a book anywhere but you can’t buy community.  Community doesn’t enjoy every day low prices at WalMart nor does it show up in a box delivered by UPS.  If you want community you have to become part of one.  Around every successful independent bookstore there is a loving community of readers and writers engaged in thoughtful conversation and debate about important issues.  Around every successful independent bookstore there is a group of informed citizens and social groups that are trying to build a better world.  Steve Costa of Point Reyes Books summed this up for us nicely when we ran into him at a regional trade show this weekend.  Asked why he took over a little known bookstore in a sleepy agricultural and tourist town, he said “The bookstore is the prefect place for our community organizing activities.”  He talked about raising $70,000 for a local not-for-profit organizations and $30,000 for a local school’s library.  He talked about the literary journal he just started with volunteers and the educational classes and literary conferences he is organizing.  He’s our new hero.

Last year we got the opportunity to attend the London Book Fair with a delegation of U.S. independent booksellers and it turned out to be our first immersive experience in learning about independent bookselling.  As we heard the stories of other independents we had an “aha” moment and it crystallized for us that the fight to save independent bookstores, is actually the fight to preserve the diversity and vitality of our culture, it’s about strengthening our local communities.  That’s what the fuss is all about!  When a great independent bookstore closes, it’s community mourns the loss like a family member has died.  It’s not because people don’t have a place to buy New York Times’ bestsellers anymore.  They are mourning the loss of a cultural institution, a community center, a place of learning, an incubator for emerging writers.  They are mourning the sacrifice of yet another piece of their identity. 

If you want to know more about what independent bookstores do, you should check out a great documentary called Paperback Dreams.  It’s a well made film that analyzes independent bookselling by going back many decades and looking at the role played by two independent bookstores in their communities.

Next week we will talk about why independent bookstores have to reinvent themselves (this time we promise, we really will!).

In the meantime, we would love to hear your stories about your favorite independent bookstores and why you love them – and if you haven’t fallen in love yet, make a point to get out a visit a few.

A final note of acknowledgement:  Our education on this topic would have been grossly incomplete without the incredible generosity of many veteran and successful independent booksellers.  We are immensely grateful to the following independent booksellers for their warmth, generosity, and sharing spirit without which we would still be groping around in darkness.  We are still groping but at least we know what we are looking for.




Follow Praveen Madan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pmadan