Tuesday, May 09, 2006

BOOKS: How to Save Your Local Bookstore

This recent piece in The Guardian laments the fact that independent booksellers are going out of business at an increasing rate. The blame lies with the fact that grocery stores and big-box retailers can offer books more cheaply, and online booksellers can offer a wider selection.

My first reaction upon reading this was sadness and outrage... and then guilt. I honestly can't remember the last time I bought a new book from an independent bookstore. This despite the fact that I'm as concerned as anyone about the ever-growing possibility that just a few behemoth booksellers could control the entire retail side of the publishing industry. It scares me to consider the power such a bookopoly could hold over which books and writers and ideas get published... and which ones don't.

There used to be three indie booksellers that I would check out when I was in their vicinity, but they've all closed their doors in the past few years. I do frequent an excellent used book store that's just a few blocks from my home, but for the most part I'm an online book shopper. It's not that I'm looking for deals, but I am often looking for more esoteric titles that I can't find in bricks-and-mortar locations. For example, a couple of my recent online purchases were Bharti Kirchner's Vegetarian Burgers and Martin Grainger's Woodsmen of the West. I spent a couple of weeks looking for these titles locally, and with no luck, not even at the big-box booksellers here in Vancouver. I had no choice, it seemed, but to go online.

Now that I've written all this, I'm chagrined to admit that I just remembered there's a small independent bookstore a block and a half from my house. I can't believe I forgot it existed, but in my defence it's... well, it's kind of grotty. The selection isn't great, particularly the fiction section, which is where I live, and the ambience could be better. I suppose I could have special-ordered my books through this bookstore and kept my business local. Do bookstores want us to do this? Or is it a huge pain in the ass? Can anyone out there answer this?

How else do we get around the fact that serious book lovers want more choices than merely current bestsellers? And given that many of us are indie-minded souls, how do we reconcile our need to acquire the books we want with our desire to help out small businesses? How do you do it?

28 comments:

Diner Girl said...

I have a friend who owns a small, independent bookstore in New Jersey. I, too, feel guilty because even though she's not necessarily in my backyard, I feel like I should support her efforts somehow. So, every few months, I email her the link to my Amazon Wish List along with a note that says if she can get me these books new or gently used within 10% of what Amazon would charge, then I'll buy them from her. About half the time, she can. So, I get from her what I can and order everything else online. I also try to note which independent booksellers are reselling through Amazon and buy from them when I can, even if it's a used book.

Jagosaurus said...

I freely admit that I want what I want when I want it so I have patronized large chains and gone online quite a bit. But ... I always check the local stores and smaller chains like Olssen's here in the DC metro area. They consistently have a great selection of book and I can almost always find what I need/want there. They special order too, but I never wondered, until now, if that was a problem for them. I should ask.

Jackie said...

Thanks to sites like lulu.com, now anybody can get published. And as you say, finding things online is often easier, faster, and cheaper. I think the onus is on the indie bookshops to make the experience of shopping there just plain better than shopping online or at the big chains. That could mean having really good in-store events, free wifi and comfy seating, or killer customer service. Or what about cultivating online communities (like, say, book bloggers) to bring their socialising (and buying) into the physical space of their shops? Think Bookslut meet-ups and book swaps (as if true booksluts could leave without buying anything) in indie bookshops around North America.

Indies can't count on the guilt dollar if they want to survive, and it's in the interests of both the small businesses and their customers if they innovate and improve rather than wail and rail. I think the most productive thing customers can do is encourage them to put their energy where it should be: winning by being better.

Jackie said...

BTW: If it's online, your local indie shop can get it for you, if they choose. If you love your local indie and they can get that rare, obscure tome from some far-flung place for you, saving you the hassle of the admin and parcel receiving, I don't think any of us would begrudge them the margin they'd need to add to the cost in order to make the sale. (That said, doing it at cost for customers as an investment in survival would be financially sound of them, too.)

Anonymous said...

In Canada Indigo has such a huge chunk of the book market that we're worse off than the States where at least the two big chains have to compete with each other. Indigo can screw around smaller publishers -- like not pay them on time for instance -- and there's not much that can be done about it.

landismom said...

My decision to become a parent has had way more effect on my book-buying habits than the internet--I buy stuff online because I can't spend hours wandering through bookstores of any stripe the way I once could. Well, I can, but really, who will watch the children?

There's a great indie bookstore near where I work, which has a phenomenal children's section, but they don't ever do kids' events. It's a little weird.

Rachel said...

Having worked for two of the four biggest book wholesalers/distributors in the world, not only is it difficult for stores to order one copy at a time (it affects the discount price at which they purchase), it's even MORE difficult to get your book to the market if you're a small publisher or, god help us all, self-published.

The discounts offered by the wholesalers almost always depend on volume. The more copies you buy, the better discount you get. On top of that, the wholesaler is buying books at a discount from the publisher, so the publisher has to sell a boatload of books before they see their money back. Then and only then does the author make a buck or two.

It's weirdly parallel to the music industry in this regard.

It makes me sad to think that for every incredibly shitty book that makes it to a bookstore, some 100 actual GOOD books don't.

Anna said...

Sigh. I must confess, I work at Borders. Express. Formerly Books Etc. Books Etc was pretty much an independent, but owned by a chain... now we're being more centrally bought, and I don't think the problem is so much the chains, it's when the chains try and make everything UNIFORM. That's when the problems come in. Before the dark times, as it's referred to, the shop had complete control over everything. Now we have to have certain core stock and get scaled all these promotions and that's the more worrying trend, when everything's supposed to be the same, everywhere.

I can't remember there ever being an independent where I live, though. Which is a shame.

Ohhh, doom.

(The person above is right... special orders, you get no discount of maybe 10%, meaning 10% profit... but I'm sure activity encourages a shop, anyway, it can't ALL be about the money. I hope.)

Gryph said...

I used to work for a local indie bookstore, and they closed their doors , and it was really sad. But I don't blame the customers, it was mainly bad business management. Now I live in a small town with one indie bookstore and I almost never shop there. More than half the store is knick knacks and gadgets and toys and novelty books and while that may be what keeps them afloat, I had going in and have to cross toyland to get to the extremely limited fiction section.

On the other hand, I support my local library enthusiastically.

queen of the harpies said...

A friend of mine runs this lovely bookstore in rural Ontario:
http://uppercasebooks.ca/ Certainly, if you are in New Hamburg, it’s worth a visit. This is where we take the kids when they need books (kids need a certain amount of browsing) and this is where we met my friend. She was the awesome bookstore lady first and became a good friend only after all of her suggestions panned out.

I know for a fact that she’s happy to get weird orders and will ship pretty much anywhere that receives post.

She’ll probably ship your books to you rather than just bring them along when she comes over on a Saturday night for an evening of drinks and conversation, but you can’t have everything. Actually, you can: if you’d also like to come to my apartment for drinks and conversation, I’ll see if my friend the fabulous bookstore lady would be willing to bring your books too.

anngster said...

I manage a small indie in a PNW city, and one of the many ways we (try to) attract and keep loyal customers is through special ordering. If we don't have it, we can usually get it from a local distributor w/in the week; if it's more esoteric we go through publishers which takes a week or two. (We'll even do out of print searches on occasion). We can't offer discounts but we don't charge shipping--and it's speedy. And to answer your question--it's not much hassle at all, even kind of fun for a good online researcher. It's a way to supplement our in-store inventory which is inevitably limited by space.

It scares me to consider the power such a bookopoly could hold over which books and writers and ideas get published... and which ones don't.

I don't think people realize the extent to which this is true--this comment is already too long. Wailing and railing is not a sufficient response to the ubiquity of online retailers; the overwhelmed indies surely have a lot of creative work to do. However, some consumers--people who might skip shopping at Wal-Mart-- might consider mixing up their bookbuying a little. I have this horrid vision of the last few indie booksellers winding up as cute little Hallmark/Disney attractions in faux downtowns, surrounded by Starbucks, where you go for the simulated "experience" of shopping at an olde-timey bookshoppe. With nothing to buy but Tim LaHaye. . .

sam said...

I think you've hit upon the biggest problem - I've often found that when I go to the little independent stores, they have a limited selection, and a lot of bestsellers, but when I go to the four-story barnes & noble, I can actually find the more obscure titles (and trust me, my brother, who lives in the south pacific, sends me on some really bizarre scavenger hunts). Maybe that's just a function of living in NYC, where the variety of people probably demands an overwhelming assortment of books.

And before you say "living in NYC, why don't you frequent the Strand," let me answer that by saying that every time I walk into the Strand, I want to strangle someone because it's so crowded and claustrophobic. Plus, they make you given in your bags, and for a messenger bag wearing person like myself, that's just ridiculous. I'm not going to be able to enjoy myself browsing the back shelves while simultaneously trying to hold my wallet, cellphone, keys, and iPod in my hands.

tuckova said...

I liked the movie "You've Got Mail" and how it did a nice job of presenting the tragic story of a bookseller who was getting closed down by the big bad business, stopping by Starbucks on her way to work every day.

When I used to have access to an indie bookseller, I asked him whether it was good for his business for me to order through him or not, and he said it was good, so that's what I did.

Now I buy things from an amazing secondhand store, which may not be quite as nice to the authors but helps balance the appetite with the budget.

Kim said...

Funny. I was in my local indie yesterday, faced with just this dilemma, and I thought of you. I noticed they had the latest Dropped Threads, but it was at full price, which was 25% more expensive than I had just seen it on Amazon for. I had a similar thought - I'd love to support this indie (which also happens to be an activist bookstore), but 25% more out of good will and moral sense is a lot. And I fully understand the barriers that the indie faces, being the wife of an "indie, niche-market bike shop" owner. So.... I didn't buy the book at all. I'd say the most likely outcome will be that I'll buy it when I find it used somewhere... :-(

Dcdiva said...

I live near a small, "indie" bookstore, which is located two blocks from a two floor Barnes and Noble. However, the two seem to co-exist pretty well. The smaller store gets an excellent group of authors and other speakers in on a regular basis, while the Barnes and Noble seems to exist for the 'grab it now' crowd.

There's also a used book store in between the two. I'm rather lucky for choice.

bookstore@junghouston.org said...

I am the manager of an independent boosktore with a really narrow focus (Jungian psychology to be exact).
I welcome special orders with open arms! I can fulfill anything that is in print and I will ship anywhere.
It helps if the customer is not in a hurry and I can add the title onto my next regular order with that publisher, but that is not a necessity. I can also get books here overnight if the customer wants.
Most customers really want to feel like they are "making a difference" for our store and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.
My store is actually doing quite well, particularly in the last year or so, so hopefully we are doing something right!
Thanks for writing about it.

Jackie said...

Rachel, interesting comment, but I have to address the question of getting to 'the market'. People here are saying that they are already shopping online for their books, so those whose books are from small publishing houses or self-published really only need the interent to reach 'the market'. I've spent the last couple of years helping a small, niche publishing company (started by someone who had never worked in publishing, had no publishing contacts, and had never even written a book, using all of his savings) to sell out of the first printing of their first book (now in its second printing, with a movie of the first on the way). Barnes & Noble and their ilk all refused to stock his books. He had zero PR budget. But cultivating online networks, he was soon selling tons of books (and had the big boys overturning their previous decision not to stock him).

That publisher isn't the only one who's getting his books into the right hands without having to kiss The Man's ass, and it's getting increasingly easier and cheaper to do so. The big chains are annoying for many reasons, but no one can blame them in this day and age for not having a published book that people can and do buy.

Doppelganger said...

Wow, it's great to hear so many people's opinions and knowledge. And thanks to you bookstore insiders for letting me know that special orders aren't frowned upon. From now on, I'm going to go that route whenever possible.

I'm really interested in people's comments about how independent booksellers can be remain relevant, fun places to be and shop. I wonder how much of our passion about this subject comes from the fact that I bet almost every one of us harbours a secret dream to run his or her own bookstore. I know I do.

Rachel said...

Jackie, I hear you, but the vast vast vast majority of tiny or self-publishers that I worked with had no idea about marketing and the internet and viral marketing or whatever the kids are doing these days to get word out. Getting published with a bigger house has all that built in. You get your marketing packet when you get the receipt for the sale of your soul, you see.

I would love it if more small-time houses and independent pubs and writers would harness the power of this internet thing, but sadly, few of them do.

Back to the indie bookstore thing, the closest ones to me that I can think of are in Princeton, and they're not bad. I suppose it helps to have a world-class university at hand. But as with the commenter above, you really cannot argue with a 25% discount (and the free shipping that goes with it) when you buy online. I hate that it's all about the money, but now that I'm no longer in the job that provides the free books, it really does come down to that. Or waiting for-freaking-ever for the library to get it.

Em said...

I've done a bit of book-buying on Amazon, but I don't often get chances to go into the city and the larger bookstores. I've grown up in Canada's only official Booktown, so I guess I'm lucky that I've got ten independant bookstores within four blocks. Together, they offer a wide variety of genres, fiction, non-fiction, special order books, bestsellers, whatever. There's also some sweet second-hand shops, one of which has some pretty ancient books for a pretty steep price, but I just like to look at them through the glass. And even I could afford an 1886 copy of A Sentimental Journey.
The stores tend to prey on tourists, but the prices aren't too bad, especially if you're looking for a harder-to-find book. But if you're wanting a common title, you're probably better off getting it at Chapters or Amazon.
So...go Booktown, I guess.

Dale said...

I was just in Victoria BC and bought a ton of books at Munro's which I loved and then lugged back to Ontario.

It beat the hell out of spending time in Chapters & Indigo where the books are categorized into a million little sections.

Having said that, I do order a lot online. I don't feel too bad about it but must say I prefer the smell of an old tyme bookstore.

Teleri025 said...

I live in a college town in the midsouth, and I've live in smaller southern towns all my life. As a kid and a teenager, my access to books was very limited. The tiny local bookstores only had best sellers and rarely had anything I wanted. At the time I got by on library cards and best friends who would loan me books. Once the internet came around, I magically had access to a entire range of books that I never knew existed. No longer limited to my local bookstores (chain or independent) I could read just about anything I wanted and with some cases I could have a book in a few days of ordering it.

Honestly, the only independent bookstores in my area I can think of that sell new books are all faith-based or sell only text-books.

Maybe in larger cosmopolitan areas, supporting the indie guy is an option, and one I'd be 100% behind. But here, in Wal-mart land...if I want to read anything that's not by the holy massmarket trinity of King, Clancy, and Crichton my only option is online.

Andrea said...

An independent bookstore just opened up by my subway stop, and I really like shopping there -- except that the staff isn't particularly warm or friendly. That doesn't make any sense to me -- I go in there all the time, and it's not that I expect them to be fawning over me or anything, but what I would really love from an independent bookstore are warm smiles, recommendations based on what I'm buying, etc. I still buy most of my books there, but it makes me wonder.

Anonymous said...

My friend owns an indie shop in mid-Michigan and sells both stock in his store and online through ABEbooks, so he gets in on the internet book-buying as well as the brick and mortar browsing. He also does special orders, etc. One thing that keeps his store going is his focus on the local--local authors/musicians, books about the area, etc., which the big box stores can't do because they have to conform to the corporate store plan.

Anonymous said...

A while back I needed a bunch of Polish lit very quickly. The library had been cleaned out and I had an essay to write. I did make extensive use of chapters/amazon at that time. Other than that I find I rarely need a book immediately. I don't mind waiting for a smaller bookstore to get a book for me. My list of books is so long that it would take about a year for me to get to actually reading a new book anyways.

Price is a big issue. Amazon et al has a huge advantage in this regard. My personal attitude is to pay more at the smaller stores because I'm thinking about the long term agenda. A part of me is very afraid of large corporations controlling the publishing industry (i.e. anymore than it already does).

On the other hand, I suppose it doesn't really matter because as the corporations amalgamate all the outlets; the internet, Print-on-demand (POD) etc. allow for previously unimagined decentralisation (ironically, too much decentralisation).

It's hard to see where small businesses will fit in between these two opposing trends of absolute control and absolute freedom. I fear there will be many casualties.

Carrie K said...

And today in the paper it's reported that Cody's in Berkeley is closing down its flagship store (there are still two others) citing both decrease in sales and the condition of the city street its on (deteriorating).

I'm lucky, we've got a lot of independent bookstores around here, but I have to say, I do shop at Amazon and Alibris.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:
"One thing that keeps his store going is his focus on the local--local authors/musicians, books about the area, etc."

I think that's a good idea. At least, I thought it was when I had a book published and then called all the local indies to see if they wanted to stock it or host a reading. No... none of them did.

I shop at Borders because they carry my books.

Kim said...

You're right. It's worth the investment to keep the indies around. Off I go.