Bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble were among the first retailers to feel the sting of Amazon, with its vast variety of titles and speedy delivery times, not to mention its huge share of the ebook market. However, the online goliath doesn’t appear to be having the same diminishing effect on the number of independent bookstores.
On the one hand, there’s a computer algorithm pulling up suggestions you might like from millions of titles, books that come with cheap prices. On the other, there’s the experience of talking to knowledgeable bookstore staff and getting a personal recommendation culled from a tightly curated, possibly more expensive selection, while interacting with other customers and thus, being part of a community.
Basically — would you rather click a few buttons and have a book dropped off at your door the next day, or is hanging out with your fellow book nerds in the “Sci-Fi/Fantasy” section with a glass of wine for a few hours more your speed?
For many, it’s the latter, prompting indie stores to pop up to meet the demand: while Labor Department data cited by MarketWatch, shows that the number of bookstores nationwide declined 12% last year, independent bookstores trade group American Booksellers Association says memberships have shot up almost 13% in the five years before 2016.
In 2016 alone, the ABA says it added 87 member stores that opened for business in 32 states and the District of Columbia. That’s a 42.6% increase over the number of store openings in 2015.
“As the volume of books published increases, the importance of a bookseller that can recommend titles has never been greater,” Oren Teicher, chief executive of the ABA, told MarketWatch.
Some independent stores are popping up in areas where big name bookstores — like Barnes and Noble — have shut down. Others are being bought out by a new generation of booksellers, who are then reopening the stores.
“Their energy and enthusiasm has been contagious for everyone else,” says Teicher.
What’s happening in the book world is not that terribly different from what we’ve seen in the fresh food industry in the last decade. Yes, that huge supermarket at the strip mall might have shut down the smaller regional chain that had fewer products and higher prices, but the farmer’s market across town is now doing a booming business catering to customers who want to buy from the people who know the most about what they’re selling.
What remains to be seen is whether many of these indie bookstores will be able to remain open in the longterm, as consumers increasingly turn to ebooks.