What About the Independent Bookstore that Won’t Change or Can’t?

Luke and me reading the final Harry Potter. It, like most of my books, has the stamp of my local independent bookstore.

I’ve been thinking about my local independent bookstore lately. Frankly, I’m worried about them. They are the same friendly, old fashioned bookstore I remember from my childhood; heavy on the customer service, light on the modernization, but serving a college town and a loyal clientele so the fact that they don’t have a website and only recently started using email didn’t seem to matter. I know the two septuagenarian booksellers by name; in turn, they remember when I came into the store as a little girl, after ballet practice or en route to watching a college basketball games with my father. They remember my father too — remember still the books he liked, the ones he didn’t — and they always ask about my family.

When I went back to see them after being abroad on and off for three years, I was relieved to see that they hadn’t changed one drop. In the same way that children secretly hope their parents will never grow old, never change, certainly never to go away, I wanted them to be just as they were when I was a child, a mecca of reading delights and happy memories. And as for the whole changing industry situation? I guess I naively hoped that they had escaped the need to modernize and think of creative ways to sell books.

But that wasn’t what I found. Yes, they’re still the same, still doing business in much the same way they always have, but they aren’t happy and they aren’t succeeding. In fact, if they don’t change soon they could disappear. Talking with Margaret, one of the booksellers, I discovered that they are deeply afraid of ebooks, Amazon and all the “newfangled technology” that threatens to make a little brick and mortar business like theirs obsolete.

“I don’t know anything about ebooks,” she said, dropping her hands to her sides in exasperation. “We only started using email last year and that was because we were forced.”

They switched to email because their suppliers at the wholesalers were going to start charging them for every mailed order form.

When I suggested the importance of having a website she said, “Oh, we have one of those. It’s on Facebook,” she said the name uncertainly. “We have somebody managing it for us.”

I was surprised and relieved to hear that some of her customers had been asking about buying ebooks from the store. They practically promised to buy their ebooks locally if a website existed where they could. In a business that survives on responding to customers’ needs, I thought this would be all the validation they’d need to bite the bullet and start a website. But it appears the overhead cost is too high, the task too daunting.

When I began to talk about how some independents are selling Google ebooks via their websites, I could see her eyes glaze over. I never finished the sentence “Some stores are putting QR codes on shelf-talkers that link up to the store’s website so that…” because she cut me off. “I don’t understand any of that,” she said.

I left the store thinking, ‘but you’re going to have to‘.  And because I was a little frustrated, I was also thinking of Bob Dylan: “Get out of the way if you can’t lend a hand, because the times they are a changin’”

In recent months the blogosphere has been ripe with inspirational stories of independent bookstores adapting and surviving in spite of the recession, ebooks and customers’ seeming preference for Amazon. These stories have been cause for hope. But let’s be honest, one of the reasons booksellers have had it rough lately is because the industry has thousands of Margarets: honest, hardworking, book-loving people, who started their businesses in the 80s before ebooks and the internet, and so for many of them, they never needed to cultivate their technological skills and now they think they’re too old to learn. And so they’re floundering.

In communities where the local bookstore is a town fixture, and where its closure would be a loss to thousands (practically and sentimentally), I feel that it’s important for the community to reach out. The ideas are out there, (mostly in the blogosphere and twitterverse, of which booksellers like mine know very little).  It’s just a matter of inspiring folks like Margaret to see these new changes in the industry as an opportunity, not a cause for fear.

How do we reach out to our locals? What’s the first thing you would suggest to a struggling bookseller? How are your local indies doing?

  1. Bobbi said:

    We only have a couple of IBS in this town and they are doing ok. They seemed to have embraced the inevitable and do have ebooks, however one of them is a book swap store and I am not sure how they are handling that. I hope your little sotre learns quickly. Maybe you should get a job there and help them out. Show them the ropes in hopes that you and Luke could (possibly) take over one day. ;)

  2. Claire said:

    A friend from the business world mentioned to me the other day that he knew of a guy in a white suit that traveled all over the southeast going from restaurant to restaurant asking them to take a chance on him. He said something along the lines of, “I have a recipe that I’ve created, if you use it and put it on your menu I’d just like 3 cents of each dish you sell.” There was hardly a place that turned him down. So his recipe ended up being a good one and those 3 pennies began to add up and after a couple years he was able to start his own restaurant chain. It is well known now just like his white suit; this man was Colonel Saunders. I know a book store isn’t the same as a fast food chain but I think my friend was on to something. If you could go into these old places and ask them to make risk free claim on the future by letting you create a website and modernize the place in this way or that, you won’t charge them because it is important to you. Then after a couple months if their business starts to creep up then you would like $100 a month or maybe 10 cents for every online book they sell. That is just an example but what if you worked your magic on 10 book stores or 20 and charge them all just a small price for your work. That is just a start but the system has some sense to it. You aren’t really in this biz for the cash flow, at least not right now, so you’re really saving an industry that you value and you are saving it for others who you believe will benefit from it. I think there is a lot of potential in teaching folks like Margaret to let the modern times lift up their traditional methods, to teach them that this is a moment to embrace and not fear the present. This is a time of creativity and excitement. I think you’re on to something here…

  3. Ellie said:

    Our local is actually growing. They used online selling to increase business and buy a much larger shop. They are becoming a local attraction. http://www.midtownscholar.com/

  4. Erin said:

    That’s awesome, Ellie. Yeah, I think online selling coupled with strong customer service is the key.

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