The Old Bookstore:
Chain bookstores are shuttering. E-book sales are growing. This is terrible news for booksellers. Only an idiot would dream of launching a physical bookstore right now, right?
Actually, I think it’s a great time, if you have just a little capital, know your community, have some business sense, and are driven by a love of good books. And if you’re not afraid to swim against the current.
Many cities and towns saw their independent bookstores swept away in the Bord-Wald-Noble tsunamis of the 1990s. Even long-established indie stores had a hard time competing with the massive selections and discounting offered through economies of scale, and it’s hard to really blame book customers, because it was an era of Bigger, Shinier, Faster in pretty much every market, from homes to phones.
The irony is the very homogenization that killed indie bookstores, and which is now killing chains, is offering a chance for indies to rise from the ashes and find new life.
No, I am not one of these people who are desperately looking for an indie bookstore role in the e-book market—why drive to a store just to ask a clerk to help you perform a Google search? However, I see a return of value in the personal connection, a shopping experience where the clerks actually read the books they are recommending instead of rolling crates of pre-designated bestsellers to the front of the store and slapping up a “40 percent off” sticker. In other words, a break from homogenization—something new and different.
Indies will no longer have to compete solely on price, because they could never hope to match the margins when trying to sell 1,000 of the latest James Patterson before the local chain store did. And, increasingly, those Patterson customers will be turning to e-books anyway, which is where the mainstream is clearly moving.
But indie bookstores were never geared to appease the mainstream. Sure, it is nice when somebody rolls in at Christmas for the annual shopping spree, but the average person consumes about two books a year. Indie bookstores shouldn’t compete for the average customer—they should recognize they serve a niche audience, one that is slightly peculiar, eccentric, and individualized.
The Indie Bookstore:
If I were starting a bookstore today, I would take on a role of gatekeeper, something that was lost in the chain frenzy. If a book is junk, don’t order 200 copies and then pretend it’s good just because it’s on the bestseller list. That actually hurts your business and alienates your customers. Instead, consider cultivating good readers, as well as conversation around good books. They still carry social weight, and books and genres lend themselves to small communities that still like to meet in the real world rather than tweeting about what they just read.
Why do I think this? I run a regular comic-book convention in our small town, which has one comic shop. Nearly 300 people come out, all ages, a diverse cross-segment of the community. Virtually anything in the convention could be purchased online, even the older comics. Yet people still come, because they want the experience. And they spend money. The value is not just in the objects purchased, but in the experience.
Offer your customers an experience, rather than just a product, and they will return. If they value you, they will support you. Of course, good coffee doesn’t hurt, and as in any business, you’ll need to be creative. But real estate is cheap right now, and people are looking for richer experiences. Not merely saving a few nickels on a megalithic blockbuster—let those customers go elsewhere—but in people who might need a personal recommendation, or to discover an exciting new literary voice or new small publisher.
And don’t neglect genre fiction. One mistake Booksense and the indie booksellers’ associations make is they focus too heavily on literary fiction, almost to the point of snobbishness. Rarely does a Top 50 indie book not have the words “A Novel” after the title, as if we have to be told “This Is Important.” Reach out to all the genres and multiple audiences, and you might be surprised at the enthusiasm and customer base. I’d rather have the ‘cool” factor than the “hip” factor any day.
IndieReads has started an Indie Selects program , a review service and distribution program that combines the selling power of independent bookstores with the vast community of self-published authors, and other models are arising as the traditional gates crumble and gatekeepers have to get real jobs. To put it another way, who would you rather trust for a book recommendation? A clerk who lives down the street and is surrounded by books everyday, or a formula crafted from a Profit & Loss statement in New York?
It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. An indie store that breathes life into literature, instead of a warehouse full of shiny corporate trinkets? That sounds like a place I’d like to visit. And probably drop a few dollars.
Scott Nicholson is author of the new mystery thriller Liquid Fear as well as the bestsellers The Red Church, Disintegration, Speed Dating with the Dead, and 20 other books. He resides at hauntedcomputer.com.