Far be it for us to tell other people how to run their business, but we simply cannot take the strain any longer. For weeks now, all the major newspapers have run stories about the decline of this neighborhood bookstore, the threat to that small shop, the fear that we’re losing the souls of our communities as we lose our bookstores.
The answer is both simple and near-impossible: rethink the bookstore.
This is true. The homogenization of our shopping districts is creating a distinct dullness to our hometowns. It is hard for the small, local business to compete with the heady revenues generated by yet another Gap outlet. We don’t know if it’s comfort or resignation that drives people into the multitude of chain stores, day after day, week after week, month after month. We just know that they’re surviving quite nicely while local businesses tend to suffer.
So what of the independent bookstore? How can it compete? Two years ago, Jeff Bezos estimated that online sales would comprise less than 20% of our buying habit. Anecdotal evidence from author friends suggest that the percentage of sales they make through Amazon is relatively low, even as Amazon remains very important. Brick-and-mortar stores still bring in the big bucks. Naturally, chain stores, with the their display areas and massive checkbooks, garner the most sales.
So what of the independent bookstore? How can it win? The economics of bookselling do not favor small customers. They do not favor authors, either, but that is another post for another day. Books are heavy, space-intensive objects. The cost of a book, the cost of stocking a book can be a burden on a small store. Bigger outlets have warehouses, direct lines to distributors, more shelf space. A small store must necessarily be creative about what it does.
So what of the independent bookstore? How will it survive? The answer is both simple and near-impossible: by rethinking what it means to be an independent bookstore. Community, companionship, coffee, cabernet… It isn’t just books that the stores need to sell, it’s a lifestyle. If social networking is the magical glue of the Internet, it is surely the magical glue of real life. Browsing and buying of books needs to be part of a larger effort to build community.
Consumers have shown, with their willingness to order from Amazon (the generic concept of Amazon rather than Amazon.com), that waiting for a book is not a deal-breaker for them. Sure, there are the rare “event” books, but, by and large, the need to have a specific book right now– homework and last-minute bookclub desperation aside — is rare. Independent bookstores can merge the “I don’t know what it’s called, but the cover was hot pink with blue squiggles” interaction that drives customers to bookstores with the power of unlimited distribution. They can use Amazon or Amazonesque distribution mechanisms to fulfill customer needs while using face-to-face interaction to connect with community.
Bookstores need to be destinations, places where stay-at-home mothers and harried office workers and casual shoppers and everyone else want to be. Bookstores need to be invitations to a magical, comfortable, welcoming world. This is how independent bookstores will survive. This requires strategic, creative thinking mixed with a willingness to look beyond the books (we know, we know). Why not bookstore as a (classy) neighborhood bar, a place where reading and after-work drinks mix comfortably?
We’ve been reading about the death of the independent bookstore for over ten years now — isn’t it time to stop the hand-wringing and start the creative thinking?