Despite the fact that on more than one occasion the death knell has been sounded for independent bookstores, they’re not going away anytime soon. And over the holiday season, browsing and shopping in them remains a favorite activity.
Why do we love them? Many of us still like to touch and feel books. Books take us back to our childhoods. Books take us away to unknown worlds. Books are the perfect gift for practically anyone. And bookstores themselves? During the winter holidays, especially, they are warm and cozy destinations…shelters in the storm of holiday bustle.
The news is definitely mixed for the 10,800 bookstores across the U.S. Stats provided on the Online Educational Database (OEDB) bear this out. For example, Amazon has over 20 percent of the market (22.6%, to be exact). And e-books have captured $3.2 billion of the market. No surprises here.
But the digital revolution has hit all booksellers hard. Many larger chains have also gone out of business, Borders being the largest and most recent.
But while 2012 hasn’t been ‘banner’ for bookstores, the OEDB site points out that it hasn’t exactly been as terrible as you may think, either. Bookstore sales and the number of bookstores themselves are falling, but significantly more slowly and gradually than once predicted. But as we crawl out of the recession, bookstores are hoping that consumers will spend some of their disposable income on books. So far, at least, many aren’t seeing it.
But what may be a surprise to many is that industry watchers say that independent bookstores may be making a comeback. OEDB says that the exit of some bigger retailers may have actually helped independents. Many have seized the opportunity to provide the kind of selection and customer service you can’t get in bigger establishments or online. The site says there’s also been a shift among some to niche markets, where specialization and a specific kind of expertise matter.
Bookstats 2012, a comprehensive annual survey of the U.S. publishing industry, reported that in 2011, “…brick-and-mortar stores remain the biggest sales channel.” Independent bookstores have been taking steps to stay competitive. A number are trying all kinds of creative strategies, with good results.
In St. Louis, for example, where there has been an especially active campaign to support independent bookstores, many reported that 2011 was one of their best years. There was the founding of the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance, which raised awareness of 12 small stores by holding bus cruises, literary speed-dating and a holiday book drive. One of the biggest challenges has been letting consumers know that they can also buy e-books through the independent stores. Some offer gift cards, coupons or discounts as incentives. Loyalty programs and strengthening ties to schools and the community are also in the works, reflecting a core value of many independently owned stores: to be a good citizen and neighbor.
Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn started a First Editions Club that works a lot like wine or chocolate of the month. Subscribers receive pre-selected first editions of books signed by the authors.
But the independent bookstore story remains one of struggles combined with (often small) triumphs. And the holidays definitely provide a welcome boost for the industry. Read NPR’s recent account here.
Meanwhile, a growing legion of customers has vowed not to let their independent bookstores disappear. And in the end, it is all about the consumer, many of whom, still like the experience of hanging out in a bookstore and reading printed books. Some like to switch the back and forth between print and digital, a trend the industry hopes will continue.
Earlier this year, a USC Dorslife/L.A. Times poll in California showed that even though residents there love their gadgets—Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers— they still prefer books the old-fashioned way: on paper. Only 10% of respondents who have one said that they had abandoned traditional books. More than half said most or all of the books they read are in printed form.