Monday, January 16, 2012

Saving Indie Bookstores in the Age of Amazon

My neighborhood recently lost its only bookstore. Making this loss even more tragic is that it was an independent bookstore. It was an intimate space stacked from floor to ceiling with cheaply priced books, and the owner and staff were friendly. It had been around for years, but few outside the neighborhood knew about it. I chalked this up to poor promotion: it had virtually no online presence, didn't advertise in local media, and began hosting in-store events (sporadically) only toward the end of its operation.

WORD, an indie bookstore in Brooklyn, has thrived, thanks to an active online and social media presence, many well-publicized in-store events, and an expertly curated selection of books.
image source:

I feel this bookstore could have been saved (or at least prolonged its existence) if its owner had created a sophisticated-looking website and updated it frequently; actively connected with the public through social media such as Facebook and Twitter; routinely emailed customers about upcoming events; placed ads in local indie publications; and hosted in-store events on a regular basis. These events wouldn't have needed big names; they could have just spotlighted area talent. Or they could've been crafting get-togethers or movie nights (with book tie-ins) - anything to draw people to the store.

In the age of Amazon, bookstores - especially independent bookstores - have to try harder to just survive. This means establishing a lively Web presence, featuring expertly curated staff selections, and hosting more events, as Janaka Stucky suggests in his article "How to Survive in the Age of Amazon," published on the Poetry Foundation's website. It also means interacting in a more personable way with customers. At many small bookstores I've been to, the staff have acted in a gruff or condescending manner when approached. Sometimes, they've ignored me altogether. I want to support an independent establishment, but if I'm not treated as a valued customer there, I'll take my money elsewhere. It's as simple as that.

In a Big Think article, which I've reposted below, Austin Allen touches on many of these points. He further states that by catering to the needs of a particular group of people - in this case, poets and fans of poetry - bookstores can better save themselves. I don't think indie bookstores' focus has to be (or should be) this narrow to ensure their survival. (After all, countless bookstores that catered to specific populations, such as women, blacks, and gays, for instance, have gone under in recent decades.) I feel as long as independent bookstores actively make their presence known online, in print, and in the community - and they are at least polite to their customers - they'll have a fighting chance at staying alive in the age of Amazon.

Ps. I understand there are factors beyond bookstores' control, such as rent increases, that can spell doom for these establishments. But this blog and the accompanying article focus on what bookstores can do on their end to help preserve (or even grow) their business. * January 12, 2012

"Humanity Over Technology": The Stucky Plan to Save Bookstores

By Austin Allen

Bravo to Janaka Stucky, whose new article in Poetry on struggling independent bookstores is both the most sensible and inspiring thing I’ve read on the subject. Stucky concedes what everyone in the industry knows, that a price war with Amazon is one small bookstores cannot win. Reasoning that these stores must therefore fight on different turf, he offers some concrete suggestions: establish a lively Web presence, feature expertly curated staff selections, and above all, host more events—that is, become a hub not just for reading material but for readings.

While not radically original, Stucky's advice is lucidly explained through anecdotes from his own experience (as the publisher of Black Ocean Press, he works frequently with indie bookshops). And where most book-business articles would rehash their theses in a neat concluding paragraph, Stucky builds instead to a rousing and unexpected finish. Since the Amazon Wars are an unusual topic for Poetry magazine, I might have seen this coming, but I didn’t:

People who read poetry are the unsung customer base for independent bookstores: they are avid readers, they love books as physical objects, they will religiously attend author readings, they read books on a variety of subjects, and they buy more books annually than anyone else I know. By catering to the type of person who reads poetry, these successful bookstores have perhaps unwittingly remained focused on what devoted patrons of bookstores really value: variety over homogeneity, literature over media, humanity over technology, and community over price…

If bookstores can learn to embrace these odd readers as secret representatives of the type of person who’s at the core of their customer base, rather than get sucked into a doomed downward spiral of price slashing on the latest best-selling hardcover, they will remain relevant and attractive to the customers they need in order to survive. Poetry, the least profitable and most esoteric of all the genres, can save the bookstore.

You can accuse Stucky of being self-serving or self-congratulatory—and can accuse me of the same, since I’m an MFA poetry student—but to me this rings absolutely true. More broadly, I think independent bookstores must seek their core customer base in the products of the modern creative writing boom. Some numerical context will help here: last year an estimated 1,400 students graduated with MFAs in poetry, compared with around 700 in 2001. That’s about 10,000 over the past decade. Now include all other genres (fiction, memoir, etc.), and you’ve got at least double to triple that number.

Combine this with writers outside of programs, and you’re looking at a vast (and growing) pool of younger people not only interested but potentially invested in the bookstore experience. Like Prairie Lights and other outfits that thrive in prominent MFA communities, small bookstores everywhere need to greet these writers with open arms. Thousands of them would be willing to offer live entertainment, in the form of readings, to as many local bookstores as their time and travel budget allow. They would do so not for pay but for the opportunity to promote books, which they’ve typically published through small presses like Stucky’s—presses which in turn are finding new ways to survive thanks to print-on-demand technology, social media outreach, and, as Stucky describes, carefully cultivated ties with select stores.

In other words, the salvation of the independent bookstore is closely linked to the salvation of the independent publisher and the independent writer. Through the enhanced connections made possible by—what else?—the Web, this already cozy relationship can and must become an exuberant ménage à trois.

[Image courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, user eflon.]

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