Thursday, September 27, 2012

Let's Celebrate the Re-emergence of the Indie Bookstore! Are We Crazy?

By now it is no secret what has happened to both publishing and the retail book market over the past thirty years or so. Publishers moved furiously to a bottom line philosophy, replacing longtime editors with fresh-faced accountants, and the result over time has been the steady decline of more literary titles in favor of mass market genre books. The result of this shift gave rise to big box stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, among others, which in turn precipitated a steady decline in the number of local independent bookstores. In fact, fifteen years ago there were no less than thirty thousand independent bookstores operating in the United States; today there are about ten thousand - a two thirds mortality rate! So why do we at Open Books detect a re-emergence of the independent book seller?

It is no secret what happened to Borders, now in chapter 11 bankruptcy. Many reasons exist for the failure of this once powerhouse retailer. Some blame the emergence of the eBook and Borders' lackluster effort to implement a viable eBook business. Others understand that the company's rapid (global) expansion took place too fast and without adequate market research. But there may be another reason for their failure lurking below those more surface analyses. It is our position as a small publisher that such big box stores are simply not providing enough of the products that people actually want to buy. What's more, there may be a service deficit as well, as many book buyers have complained that the staff in such stores is simply not as knowledgeable as those found in quality independent stores. Whether or not other big box retailers will survive the factors here noted hangs in the balance, although it is not hard to determine from their own shareholder reports (as well as other sources available to the public) that they too are indeed under stress.

Meantime, a few very well managed independent bookstores are flourishing. The Tattered Cover in Denver and Powell's in Portland are legendary, but even more interesting are stores such as The Literary Book Post in (of all places) Salisbury, North Carolina, Common Good Books (Garrison Keilor's store) in St. Paul, Minnesota, Moby Dickens in Taos, New Mexico, and many others. These stores, rather than contracting, or even succumbing to the pressures imposed by chain stores, have actually expanded as they have learned to draw buyers from outside their geographical areas. The big question, of course, is why these stores have not only managed to survive but actually grown; and the answer that we can determine as we talk continually with the owners is that they simply provide the products, and even more importantly the services, that the reading public finds lacking in the chain stores. It's true that the cappuccino might not be as good, but if you are looking for that lesser known title or author that ultimately delights, then the indies are undoubtedly the place to shop.

So often, new concepts generate excitement, but it just may be that the reading public's fascination with one-size-fits-all bookstores has worn a bit thin. In essence, what good are 100,000 titles if the store does not have the one you want.

The trend toward big box book retailers certainly brought books to areas where previously the communities were under-served, but what it has also done is influence the publishing industry at large to publish more generic books,not to mention fewer new writers. Such a Wal-Mart mentality might be good for microwave ovens but it is disastrous for art. We believe readers are craving what they cannot find, and never will find, at these look-alike super stores, so they are returning, albeit slowly, to the independent stores where corporate buying through market research gives way to an honest search for quality and originality. And it is those books, we believe, whose time has come again; it is those books that keep loyal customers of the few independents remaining coming back time and again. Is this a backlash? We think so. We believe serious readers are tired of 500 shades of gray, and that they are desperately in search of living color.

Will we see the number of quality independent booksellers increasing in the coming years? We at Open Books think the transformation is already well underway, and we thank store owners and their staffs for staying true to the 'real' literary cause. You just can't keep good people with noble intentions down forever.  

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