Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We love Greenlight Books but think they might be wrong about the future of independent bookstores

Fact 1: I love Greenlight Bookstore. I visited the store, located in the Ft. Greene section of Brooklyn, couple of weeks ago on Saturday to hear a story time for Chanukah with my little daughter and it's a beautiful store with a great atmosphere.

Fact 2: I read yesterday an article on NPR, where it was written that "these days, independent bookstore owners Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Books in Brooklyn argue that the struggling local bookstore is a thing of the past." I think they might be wrong.

So I don't really need to further explain why I love Greenlight Books (and if you haven't been convinced, just pay them a visit), but I certainly owe you an explanation why I think they might be wrong when it comes to the current state of indie bookstores.

First, the article on NPR tries to present a thesis that indie bookstores are in better shape now than big book retailers like B&N and Borders. Rebecca Fitting, one of the owners of Greenlight Books, explains it in the article:

"The potential is for there to be two trends," she explains. "Digital content — which is ubiquitous and everywhere — and the local, boutique, curated side. And the chain stores unfortunately don't have the advantage in either of those areas. I mean, they can't carry every book in the world in their store, and they don't have the same emotional connection to their neighborhood that a local store does."

To sum it up, Fitting and the other co-owner, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, believe that the two main factor that differentiate indie bookstores from big chains is the emotional connection of local customers to their local bookstore. Add to that the new opportunities to sell ebooks now that they started partnering with the new Google eBookstore and you've got this part covered as well.

I believe that the emotional connection factor is real, but I think that only in places like New York, San Francisco, Portland and few other cities, where there is a large number of people with what you can call 'strong local values' who are willing and able to translate these values to local purchasing. These are the same people that care about and purchase local food for example.

But the point is that it looks to me that Ft. Greene is the exception and not the rule. From what we see, hear and read bookstores in many other places don't enjoy the same fortune Greenlight Books has and not because they're doing something wrong, but because they don't have a similar committed local population that is willing and able to support them.

As long as independent bookstores stick to the same retail model they have been using for years, the emotional connection factor, beneficial as it may be, won't be enough to keep them in business. For most people, the choice when it comes to purchasing physical books, would still be the cheapest website they could find on the Internet or the one they got used to like for example.

I wish I was wrong, but unfortunately it looks like more indie bookstores are closing than opening.

Regarding the ebooks part - although the partnership with Google opened a new window of opportunities for indie bookstores, it is a limited one. I believe it has a limited potential because as we mentioned here before when it comes to buying ebooks online, it's all about competition to get a high rank on search engines and indie bookstores really have a small chance to compete in this field against Google itself, big chains, Amazon and even the publishers.

And even if the ebook sales channel will show some degree of success, I don't see how it will support the brick and mortar operations of the stores. As Mike Shatzkin explained it last week in his blog 'The Shatzkin Files': "Look at it this way. If you ran a bookstore and found that through Google you were able to sell more and more virtual goods while your brick-and-mortar sales were declining, would you invest what you were earning through the new and growing channel in the old and declining one?"

In all, as much as I would like to believe that Greenlight Books represent the majority of independent bookstores, I feel that they are an exception. A beautiful and loved one, but still an exception. As long as there won't be a more radical change in the business model of independent bookstores and a greater added value to offer to consumers, they will stay in the same troubled water with B&N, Borders and other book retailers.

More related articles:
5 reasons why independent bookstores shouldn't count too much on Google Editions

Can monetary incentives + local benefits generate a brighter future for independent bookstores?

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Plant a tree for every book you read!

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