Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Independent Bookstores – Looking for Ways to Survive

Last month, more than 500 independent bookstore owners got together for a conference to discuss creative ways of generating more income. Julie Bosman covered the event in the New York Times.

What was clear was a consensus that just selling books wasn’t going to be enough. Even the giants, Borders and Barnes & Noble are struggling. There were optimistic voices:“We know now that in the world of physical book selling, 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. Now we’re finding a situation where the marketplace is getting back to reality.”

But there were also calls for changing the rules. “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.”

There was a lot of focus on taking the bookstore to the customer and harnessing websites, social media, and even selling e-books.

Matt Norcross, the owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., led a workshop on creating a store Web site and market both tree and e-books. The chosen host seems to be Google, perhaps seeking a bigger ally to fight Amazon.com. So far, they seem to be struggling to get their names out there on the web.

Naftali Rottenstreich, who is an  owner of Red Fox Books in Glens Falls, N.Y., said it it would be a huge challenge to accustom customers to the idea of buying books online through the independent bookstores.

“The mindset right now is, that’s Amazon or that’s Barnes and Noble.com,” he said. “There’s a transformation that has to take place, and I think it will happen in time.”

The idea is difficult. Their customers are willing to pay more for the privilege of perusing in an intimate environment, with staff that are familiar or them. The online idea loses all of this.

Other ideas include adding wine bars, cafes, and selling other products such as toys, baked goods or gourmet products.

Last October, I heard a lot of fear at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association conference. While I am sure there was fear aplenty at this conference, there seems to be a strong desire to adapt and survive.

Do we really want our Main Streets devoid of a bookstore? What does this say about our values and what message is it passing on to our children? Or is Main Street even going to be relevant to the next generation’s buying experiences?


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

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2 thoughts on “Independent Bookstores – Looking for Ways to Survive

  1. It is not news that indie bookstores are in trouble. It is a discussion topic among booklovers, readers, and writers for many years. For all the ink the subject has received, the indies have made little effective movement shoring up their diminishing business. There are many facets to this topic and some favor the indies.

    Small businesses that do their jobs well have loyal customer bases.

    Small businesses can execute innovative ideas quickly because they do not have to travel through layers of corporate review. If/when B&N and Borders surrender, there will still be a thousand indie bookstores standing.

    Somewhere I read about a coffee shop that put in a Laundromat. They win the prize for thinking outside the box. Some gutsy bookstore owner might consider that.

    Indies are concerned that Amazon is a gorilla in the room.

    Amazon’s success is based on an improved book-buying experience for the book-buying public.

    Authors are themselves small businesspeople and natural allies of indie bookstores. Yet authors need every outlet to reach their readers and I know of no author who believes they can be successful without Amazon.

    The growth in ebooks will be huge in the next few years and will change the game for indies and much as Amazon ever did. Indie partnering with Google to deliver ebooks is a promising development. It will give the indie’s loyal customer base the chance to patronize their neighborhood bookstore and let Amazon know there are two gorillas in the room.

    Coffee shops, wine bars, and toy sales may be expansion models that will help bookstores to add to their bottom line. I look at Book Passage in Marin for the cleverest idea. For years they have been doing workshops for writers, readers, and travelers. The fee structure leads me to believe the workshops are a profit center in themselves.

    AL Levenson’s blog, A Year on the Road, can be found at: http://www.allevenson.wordpress.com

  2. I really would hate to see the book store vanish! I love to read book and buy a lot at a time. I hope you can find a way to keep some of the book stores in the community.

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