Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Success Stories: Indie Booksellers in the Literary Marketplace

In this post-Amazon era, independent bookstores are holding their own in the literary marketplace by emphasizing what they can offer readers that Amazon cannot. ♦

In February of 2011 Borders, the international book and music giant, officially declared bankruptcy and began the process of liquidating the stock from hundreds of its stores around the United States. Literary soothsayers and e-book aficionados wondered if they were now seeing the apocalyptic fall of the brick and mortar bookstore. All eyes turned to Barnes and Noble, once associated with the corporate mainstream and the antithesis of indie booksellers everywhere, for any signs of potential longevity. It was almost inconceivable that the smaller, independent booksellers could succeed where commercial powerhouses had fallen. In the wake of the e-book revolution and Amazon’s rise to prominence in the literary marketplace, how could local bookstores survive?
        Approaching Montague Bookmill, located on the Sawmill River just north of Amherst, MA, you might notice the running waterfall, once a functional necessity for the early 19th century gristmill. However, the original structure, renovated in 1987 to house the bookstore, is only part of the Bookmill’s charm. Customers are invited to sit and relax while they read in the attached Lady Killigrew Café or peruse the painting studio of local artist Louise Minks. The books tend to be half-priced, sourced from recent publisher’s overstock, and are admittedly geared towards an academically inclined readership. This intellectual persona lends itself to their claim: “If we can’t find the book you’re looking for, we’ll find you a better one you didn’t know you wanted.” They don’t profess to have the same warehousing capabilities as Amazon, but instead rely on personal interaction and employee recommendations. Despite the forewarned collapse of the traditional bookstore and the supposedly dire fate of the industry, the Montague Bookmill is thriving. It seems they have created something Amazon, with their bargain prices, limitless stocking capabilities, and plans for delivery by way of high-speed drone, can’t yet supply. The Montague Bookmill is one of a kind, but it isn’t alone.
        In 1971 Tattered Cover, now one of the largest indie booksellers in the country, opened its doors in Cherry Creak, CO. Customers visiting any of their three separate locations will immediately notice the store’s strong emphasis on live author events, focused in particular on local Rocky Mountain writers, and direct community engagement through non-profits like Reach Out and Read Colorado. Village Books, another successful indie bookstore in Bellingham, WA, stands by their slogan, “Building Community, One Book at a Time.” They host a series of book clubs on topics ranging from motherhood to environmental conservation and even run a literary summer camp for kids. Joseph-Beth Booksellers in the Cincinnati, OH area operates under a similar business model, offering a rewards program that publically channels proceeds back into the local economy. Bookstores will likely always have some kind of support in the dedicated bibliophiles, reading countless titles of year, but they have learned to attract a more diverse range of customers as well. Community has become the operative word among indie booksellers trying to adapt to the changing marketplace. The brick and mortar success stories have all recognized the need to offer customers tangible benefits they lose by browsing through a digital catalog from the comfort of their own homes.
        Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD sells popular fiction and nonfiction titles, but they are more known for their selection of comics, zines, art books, and periodicals. They have carved out a niche for themselves as a colorful, wacky bookstore with their own distinct personality, apparent in both their online television show and related blog, finding ways to make themselves a digital presence beyond their physical location. In August 2013, owner Benn Ray transformed the attached record store into Eightbar, a cozy lounge that serves both wine and beer. Customers are invited to stay awhile, far longer than it might take to purchase a book or two, fostering that sense of local community. Again, they are certainly unique, but aren’t the only booksellers of their kind. Quimby's in Chicago, IL also self-advertises as quirky “Specialists in the Important Distribution & Sale of: Unusual Publications, Aberrant Periodicals, Saucy Comic Books, and Assorted Fancies.” Like Atomic Books, Quimby’s is known for their kind of special-interest merchandise, but they have also established themselves as more than just a bookseller. It’s a place for people to hang out. More and more successful indie bookstores aren’t characterizing themselves as simple booksellers, but are now drawing on a more diverse range of functions.
        There aren’t many businesses where customers will feel comfortable enough to kick off their shoes, lean back in any available chair, and relax, book in hand until the daily grind pulls them away, or they fall into a nap. This isn’t a site unseen in almost any local bookstore. Customers have increasingly taken ownership of their favorite indie booksellers, recognizing communal ties within places of seemingly basic commercial activity. In the post-Amazon era when e-book sales and digital purchases are increasingly becoming major components of the literary marketplace, can independent booksellers survive? Yes, because indie bookstores are more than just their economic function.
  • About the Author
    Shea Hendry can never seem to decide whether she would rather be in a museum or a library. Instead, she spends her days studying history while simultaneously finding new and avante garde methods of incorporating excessive stacks of books into dorm room interior design.

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