Independent bookstores are a dying breed, right? Amazon and ebooks killed them, correct? And aren’t all independent small businesses similarly doomed? Well, as Mark Twain might have said, “reports of their death are greatly exaggerated.”
Here’s news that’s almost certain to surprise you: independent bookstores are thriving.
April 30, Independent Bookstore Day, is right around the corner, and all brick-and-mortar small retailers can learn a lot from these poster children of small business survival. Head out to your local “indie” bookstore, buy a book or two (or three), and take careful note of what these smart, resourceful, and creative small business owners have figured out.
Many people imagine independent bookstores as a beleaguered group, destined to disappear. Not so. 60 new independent bookstores opened in 2015; 59 new ones in 2014. In the most recent Census Bureau estimates, bookstore sales rose 7.2% this past February compared to February 2015, to $732 million, marking the sixth consecutive monthly increase.
What? Hasn’t Amazon killed them all off? No, instead, independent bookstores banded together, changed their product mix, added events, and launched an aggressive campaign to rally support.
“A lot of independents came back up in the ashes of the Borders collapse [in 2011],” said Paul Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco. “We just opened a second store a year and a half ago, which we had never done.”
Mulvihill was the driving force behind the creation of “Independent Bookstore Day,” inspired by the success of “Record Store Day” (and yes, there are still independent record stores too). The high sales and support for each year’s “Small Business Saturday” (the Saturday after Thanksgiving) demonstrated that shoppers want to show their love for local, independent stores.
Launched first in California, after two successful years, Independent Bookstore Day went national in 2015. This year, 400 bookstores will participate. Canadian independent bookstores created a similar event, also on April 30.
“It’s a way for all the stores to tout their strengths on the same day,” said Mulvihill. As Independent Bookstore Day expanded, authors and others jumped in, making appearances and even creating products only available at independent bookstores.
“You can get exclusive items from publishers and authors that will never be for sale on Amazon,” Mulvihill explained. This year, only at independents, you can buy a Curious George toy wearing a T-shirt saying “Read with me,” a “Draw me!” coloring book for kids 6-12, and an Anthony Bourdain illustrated guide to making the perfect hamburger. For the full list – and to find your local bookstore – go to the Independent Bookstore Day website.
“We have events and activities, crafts, raffles and live music, anything we can think of to make it fun,” said Mulvihill about activities at his store. In 2014, author Dave Eggers sat at a table and dispensed relationship advice.
So, what’s the secret of independent bookstores’ unlikely success?
One crucial element is the burgeoning “shop local” movement – good news for all small retailers. “We’ve been talking for 10 or 15 years about shopping local,” said Mulvihill. He has seen a big uptick in support from political and civic leaders. “For the first time last year, (San Francisco) Mayor Lee launched a shop local movement. City Hall is getting involved in spreading that message because it’s important to the local economy and to the tourist economy.”
An MBA group studied Green Apple to gain insight as to why bookstores are thriving. Their findings came down to 4 factors:
**Community. Customers want vibrant and strong local communities. “People vote with every purchase with their wallet,” said Mulvihill.
**Discovery. “An algorithm that says ‘if you like this you might like that’ is not the same as either being left alone to browse the store and stumble onto something you didn’t know you wanted, or talking to an experienced bookseller who knows if you liked this you’ll like that.”
**Beauty. This success factor came as a bit of a surprise to Mulvihill. “People like our store for being beautiful in a certain way.”
**Duty. “Customers realize ‘If I don’t support this store it’s going to be gone, and I don’t want my retail corridor to be without a bookstore.’”
I’ll have more about what small businesses can learn about survival and success from independent bookstores in an upcoming column.
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2016
This article originally ran in USA Today on April 22, 2016