Why independent bookstores may likely be the last ones standing

This is a guest post by Caleb Mason

Many years ago I worked in one of the better independent bookstores in Boston, called The Book Exchange, on Charles Street.
Then I went to work up the hill at Little, Brown when they were still in Boston, eventually to head off to be part of a start-up publisher. I ultimately left publishing all together and careened straight into the jaws of death of 35mm photography (and later digital mapping software at the hands of Google’s ad-supported mapping content model.)

Konica was closing down 4300 or so Fotomats in the early 1990s, those funny little drive-thru huts in parking lots that were mostly bought by FedEx. It turned out that even that tiny real estate was too expensive to sustain the standalone photo business. Kodak was scrambling to catch up in digital photo to unexpected West Coast competition while sinking under the weight of all that lost 35mm film, single-use camera, and photographic paper high-margin business. And we know what happened to them.

This begs the question: If something as mainstream as 35mm photography did not warrant a chain of tiny stores in parking lots, why would books warrant huge superstores strewn across our paved land?

I say they do not. In fact, I predict we will see many more closings of chain bookstore locations in the near term as the shift to ebooks accelerates.

But, coming full circle, what I like about this scenario is the ironic survival of the many excellent remaining independent bookstores who outlasted the storm from superstores and the internet. They can distinguish themselves through interesting, eclectic selections and by building trust with readers looking for a local reading guide and an inspiring place to mingle with others. Imagine how their sales will rebound without so many superstores in the mix.

Online bookstores own the hugest selection of books while the independent bookstores stay small enough to own the local market. Superstores are actually trapped in the middle and are, as a result, goners. Possibly they will follow the Wal-Mart model and move into “smaller large” stores, but that is a very expensive proposition. Just look at Circuit City and CompUSA as models for that challenge. Goners.

After attending the Book Expo last week, a trade show that years ago was filled with independent booksellers and independent publishers mostly missing nowadays, I think this may be the likely outcome.

 

About this post’s author:

Caleb Mason is the founder and publisher of Publerati, an ebook publisher and literary agency specializing in literary fiction. An entrepreneur at heart, Caleb has been part of teams that have launched a start-up book publisher, new digital photography services, and award-winning software and consumer electronics’ products. Caleb began as a bookseller before working at Little, Brown in both marketing and editorial capacities. He left to join the start-up Salem House Publishers, where he acquired and edited many titles and sold rights to the major book clubs. Caleb’s book The Isles of Shoals Remembered was published in 1992 and he also contributed to BOOM, a marketing book. www.publerati.com.


12 Comments

  1. Caleb – I wholehearedly agree with you. Fulfillment will occur with the internet on one end of the spectrum and the boutiques on the other end – everyone in the middle will be squeezed out. It will be either high tech or high touch, but not both. Those in the middle will vainly attempt both at the same time but simple economics will prohibit that model succeeding. This not only will apply to book sellers but to all business enterprises.

  2. I think your reasoning makes sense. I do hope you are right. The little Indie bookstores have been struggling for a long time and deserve a break.

  3. That makes sense. I think the independent bookstores should also focus on the upscale market, rather than trying to compete on price (and stop wasting time and effort railing against Amazon). There is always room in a competitive market for different price points – look at Apple, Lexus, and other luxury brands.
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  4. Douglas Penick

    This does seem more than likely.

    What kinds of links do you think could be possible between indie books stores and indie publishers most of whose offerings are online?

  5. Very good analysis, thanks, Edward Smith.

  6. I agree with Caleb, locally owned and operated bookstore will be the survivors. Libraries have started charging for meeting space to make up for lost operating revenue from tax dollars that are needed elsewhere. Bookstores will once again become a gathering place for local authors and poets. Consumers will actually have the opportunity to meet and talk with them in person. It’s the personal touch and playing to the hometown folks that will make the difference.

    Enjoy often…John

  7. Jonatan Dwayne

    I think its great informative post about independent bookstores. I have learned more information’s from this post. Thanks for this detailed post.
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  8. True or not, it makes me sad. I love the big book stores — walking through them is so romantic to me. But that’s probably because my hubz & I both met while working at a Borders (oh, the irony). We love the small book shops as well, of course, but they are harder to find. Guess that just means I’ve got to work harder if I want to get that romance back, eh? Thanks for the insight! :)
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  9. My second ex-wife owned and operated a bookstore in the early 1980s. Big out of the box bookstore chains caused the closing—the romance was gone.

    Back then local authors doing a reading enjoyed an audience of 50 to 100 folks in the big back room at her bookstore. Authors living in the region were an attraction—fans, family, friends, and their friends showed support. Many of the reading were from works in progress. Authors with books in print were usually produced by local printers.

    I was at a conference where John Irving read an early draft of “Hotel New Hampshire.” He was nailed with questions about his plot logic and transitions. Later I remarked that was rather ballsy. He agreed, explaining the feedback was worth answering the dumb questions.

    Surviving bookstores will become a sounding board, a place for authors to test the water with new book concepts—beyond the good folks in their writers group. Bookstores will also once again become a portal to sell published work through, books by regional authors will be featured on the shelves. Nonfiction topics will rebuild a customer base—nonfiction with complex graphics and table are unique ebook conversion challenges.

    Of course ebook authors would be able to do a reading and autograph “ebook cards.” If ebook sales warrant a pbook version so much the better!!!

    Enjoy often… John

  10. Mmmm… I love wandering through the smaller indie bookstores, discovering the interests of the owners, searching out hidden treasure. There’s just something about being pulled down the aisle, and handed a book by an enthusiastic clerk who just finished reading it the night before. The current of excitement created in that personal connection with another book lover makes my connection with the book even deeper.
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  11. Howard Robb

    Great analysis. There is just so much I have heard about the Indie book stores and I am also of the opinion that they should take a break.
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