The Niche Rises Again

October 10th, 2006 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Yesterday’s news was all doom and gloom about the state of the independent bookstore — an entity that has been under siege since the dawn of the first superstore. We do not pretend to know the laws of economics (except to have a vague comprehension that projections always seem to be off for reasons nobody understands), but being independent is expensive.

The problem, of course, is that there’s always a bigger, scarier monster in the closet, and even the superstores are nervous. As venerable institutions like Tower Records face the end of their storied lives, independents are growing increasingly…creative. And some of them are really grasping the one thing they’ve said all along: it’s the community, stupid.

If there is one thing the Internet has taught us, it is that humans (our particular species) are semi-social creatures. We like to hang out in places that feed our particular interests, and we like to interact with those who share those interests. The problem being, of course, is that some of have very narrow interests. Back in the olden days, these were called the derogatory “niche”; today, they earn the admiring description “niche”.

Granted, some niches are bigger than others (example: knitting niches, surprisingly big), but independent bookstores are seeing the value of targeted, serious niche selling. Granted, this concept works a bit better in larger urban areas where there is sufficient aud…

Oh wait, what are we saying? This is the Internet Age. Niche retailers can build real-life and virtual communities. It’s like magic. It’s a way of doing something the mega-chains cannot. The biggies simply don’t get online community-building the way independents can. In trying to be everything to everyone — in the least offensive manner possible — the chain stores manage to do nothing for anyone. We don’t even think that Amazon’s recent forays in the Wild World of Web 2.0 have done much in the way of community-building, but maybe we’re hanging out with the wrong crowds.

Niche booksellers — okay, let’s be plain-spoken here, booksellers who target specific genres — have an incredible advantage. Knowledge. Generally, the booksellers are genre geeks, be it horror, mystery, romance, or science fiction…or any genre in-between. In the Tower Records article noted above, one complaint that Kirk voiced (but didn’t write about) was the lack of knowledgeable clerks. When you go into Borders, chances are you’ll find someone who reads, but not necessarily someone who reads deeply in your particular genre. A niche retailer will not only be intimately familiar with the arcana of the world of Hobbits, but so will the clientele. Oh, yes, it’s weird, but only if you don’t inhabit the world.

[Caution: marrying into the geek community can have detrimental effects on your ability to remain above it all. You may find yourself defending the very thing you make fun of. Sorry, totally off-topic, but we felt it was an appropriate warning.]

Niche retailers offer deep catalog, not just the latest hits. They offer readings and signings and discussions with authors who are so off the Barnes & Noble radar, they’ll never be found. They offer ephemera. They offer conversation. They offer community. And they can bring this whole enchilada together in the physical and online space. This is what they mean by the best of both worlds. Please note that we are talking about possibility here, not necessarily execution. We’re the idea people.

While others worry about the death of the independents, we see hope and light. Normally, this means we’re running a fever; today, it’s just excitement at possibilities.

[tags]geeks, niche, books, bookstores, tower records[/tags]

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