Independent bookstores are making a comeback

By Rieva Lesonsky

Isles of Books. That’s the name of the children’s bookstore I’ve long wanted to open when I “retired”—until I realized independent bookstores were no longer viable due to the invasion of the big box bookstores. (All this was pre-Amazon—check out the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail for context.)

I tabled my dream, until I read this article in The New York Times saying independent bookstores are thriving. The Times attributes “the continuing resurgence” to indie bookstore owners finding “ways to thrive, including hosting events” and selling non-book merchandise such as toys, games, T-shirts, stationery and coffee.

Ryan Raffaelli, a Harvard Business School assistant professor, underscores how important this is. “Independent bookstores have very little pricing power to change the price of printed books. With these other items, they have the ability to set the price,” he explains.

Another factor contributing to indie bookstores’ success is the same one that’s led to the revival of many Main Streets across the country—“becoming part of the local fabric.” “As more people spend more time online, they are looking for deeper ways to spend time with the community,” Professor Raffaelli told the newspaper. “This is almost like a social movement.”

Oren Teicher, CEO of The American Booksellers Association (ABA), agrees, telling The Times, “The thing that distinguishes indie bookstores is the engagement with the community they are in.” The Buy Local and Shop Small movements have also  contributed to the sales revival.

Modern business strategies have had an impact was well. Indie bookstores are benefitting from lower tech costs, better inventory tracking tools and “social media [that] lets them reach customers more directly,” Teicher told The Times. One entrepreneur The Times interviewed used crowdfunding to raise $18,500 to fund her store opening. Many independent bookstores are selling books online as well.

ABA membership is at its highest point since at least 2009, according to The Times, with 1,887 members in 2,524 locations. The paper also reports that indie bookstore sales were up 5% last year, and the industry saw an average annual growth of 7.5% over the past five years.

Not every indie bookstore enjoys fairy-tale success, though. While Teicher told The Times most of ABA’s members are profitable, bookseller margins are tight and are easily impacted by wage hikes and rent increases.

As for me, Isles of Books remains an elusive dream.

Bookstore owner stock photo by SpeedKingz/Shutterstock