Monday, January 24, 2011

The future of Independent bookstores (or: 5 comments on 'Small Bookstores Struggle for Niche in Shifting Times')

Julie Bosman wrote an interesting article (Small Bookstores Struggle for Niche in Shifting Times) on today's New York Times, on the search of Independent bookstores for the right ways to secure their future in times when even a giant bookseller like Borders finds it difficult.

The article was following the American Booksellers Association’s Sixth Annual Winter Institute last week, which was an opportunity for indie booksellers to "to learn, network, and just have fun". According to Bosman more than 500 independent booksellers debated their next step in this event.

The future of bookstores and especially independent bookstores (whose stores, according to the article, account for about 10% of the industry’s retail market overall) is one of the issues we're following and addressing for a long time, as we believe this would have an important influence on how the book industry will look like in the future.

Here are five thoughts on the issues brought up in the article (each comment starts with the relates quote from the article):

1. "At a workshop on Thursday, dozens of booksellers debated the finer points of alternative business models, like the addition of a cafe. Is it worth the trouble, one person asked? How do you figure out how much to charge for scones and lattes? And even if nonbook business attracts attention, how much profit will follow?“At a certain point, I begin to feel like we don’t need more P.R.,” said Roxanne Coady, the president and founder of R.J. Julia in Madison, Conn. “We need sales.”" - Roxanne Coady is right. Sales is the bottom line, but to get there indie bookstores need to provide customers with value. Value is what will eventually get customers back to stores and generate sales. Once this value was based on service and the sense of community. Apparently today this is not enough and there's need in ingredients to the 'value' indies provide.

Can coffee or vine sales be that ingredient? They can definitely help to strengthen the sense of community or be sort of a 'foot in the door' to get customers in the store, but then bookstores will have to start specialize in wine or coffee, which may not be easy at all. I'm not saying bookstores shouldn't sell more products other than books, but from a specialization point of view my estimate is that bookstores might do even better if they collaborate with the local wine or coffee shops, offering then coupons with special discounts on books for example, for their customers, and on vine/coffee for the bookstores' customers.

My feeling is that without a monetary incentive, the store's value won't be valuable enough for customers no matter what products they store will add.

2. "One challenge for booksellers, they said, was finding the balance between selling their core product without overwhelming it with the presence of coffee, baked goods, gifts and other merchandise." - True. I believe that some of the stores that will choose to focus on coffee, baked good, gifts and other merchandise will eventually find that they do well with these products and will become a coffee shop or a gift shop that also offers some books instead of a bookstore that offers coffee or some gifts.

3. "Naftali Rottenstreich, an owner of Red Fox Books in Glens Falls, N.Y., said it would be difficult to get customers to think of independents as places to buy books online.“The mindset right now is, that’s Amazon or that’s,” he said. “There’s a transformation that has to take place, and I think it will happen in time.”" - He's right. The problem is that even if this mindset will change then there's a small chance this platform will bring new customers to the stores. Online sales in their current settings won't help brick and mortar sales as it doesn't provide customers with any incentive to go to the stores and buy there books and therefore doesn't help the bookstores' owners in figuring out how to transform the stores back to an asset.

4. "“We know now that in the world of physical bookselling, bigness is no longer viewed as an asset,” said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, which has independent stores in South Florida, Westhampton Beach and the Cayman Islands. “It’s about selection and service and ambiance."" - I would rate them in this order: Ambiance, service, selection. Atmosphere is maybe the most important thing - if you go to a bookstore where the service is great, but the atmosphere is not very welcoming or you're feeling like you're in a book warehouse, or it's just not fun to be there, most chances are you won't come back. On the other hand, if you go to bookstores like Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, where you feel at home the minute you walk in, there's a pretty good chance you'll come again no matter what.

Service is also very important part of the value proposition of the store and shouldn't be ignored. When it comes to selection, it's a tough call because as an indie bookstore you will never be able to compete with Borders or B&N, not to mention Amazon, so maybe it should be about meeting a minimum level of selection to maximize the chance customers will actually find books they look for.

5. “We have to figure out how we stay in the game,” said Beth Puffer, the director of the Bank Street Bookstore in Manhattan. “You have to rethink your whole business model, because the old ways really aren’t going to cut it anymore.”" - I couldn't say it better myself. Finding the right strategy, focusing on the way to revive sales in the brick and mortar business, is key for success. Any bookstore that doesn't make it its first priority will be left behind and eventually go out of business, and it's true not just for independent bookstores, but also for the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders.

More related articles:

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

5 reasons why independent bookstores shouldn't count too much on Google Editions

Is there a future for Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores? Is it a green one?

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

You can find more resources on the future of bookstores on our website at

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: Promoting sustainable reading!