Indie bookstores fight for another chapter

May 2, 2013

Paul Yamazaki, chief buyer at City Lights. Kira Bindrim/REUTERS

Nestled on the corner of Columbus Avenue and “Jack Kerouac Alley,” City Lights Booksellers became a San Francisco icon in 1956, when founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti and store manager Shig Muraoas were arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Nearly 60 years later, City Lights is still breaking the mold: The store just had three of its best sales years ever.

“Independent booksellers all around the country are experiencing some of their best economic years in a long time,” said Paul Yamazaki, City Lights’ veteran chief buyer. “There’s so much choice out there that it makes readers’ heads spin, and I think they’re looking to booksellers to help them.”

Nearly 20 years after the birth of Amazon—and 15 years after Barnes & Noble was dealt a backhanded censure by the film You’ve Got Mail, independent booksellers are benefiting from their attention to personal attention. The 2011 liquidation of Borders, coupled with a nationwide “Buy Local” push to boost small businesses, have helped independent stores market themselves as a viable alternative to their mega-competitors.

“Buy Local” is not a foolproof strategy. Even indies are up against e-readers and lagging book sales. But a local approach helps smaller stores survive and, in some cases, thrive.  

“Contrary to the popular narrative that independent bookstores are a dying breed, there is an extraordinary network of stores out there that are not only hanging on, but doing okay,” said Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association. The association, which represents 1,600 member companies operating in 2,200 locations, saw sales across its network increase by 8 percent in 2012, and overall ABA membership has grown in each of the last three years. Over the same period, Barnes & Noble has closed a steady 15 stores per year, and plans to continue doing so for another decade. A statement from the company notes that “some of the stores are unprofitable, while others are relocations to better properties.”

Teicher attributes indie sellers’ success to Borders closing, the advent of new and cheaper technologies, and recent blockbusters like The Hunger Games and 50 Shades of Grey. But most important, he says, are the customers.

“There are literally millions of consumers every day making the decision to shop in a locally owned business, simply because it’s a locally owned business,” he said.

With the localism movement in mind, the ABA in 2008 helped launch IndieBound, a member program and marketing push to encourage support of independent bookselling and publishing. Store owners say it has yielded a tighter connection between sellers, authors and readers, which has, in turn, brought people in their doors.

“Of course there’s always that worry about becoming the incredible shrinking bookstore,” said Joyce Meskis, owner of Denver-based Tattered Cover. “But things are leveling out.” With three stores in the Denver area, Tattered Cover is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Elliott Bay Book Co. Photo by Sarah Anne Ward

Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. is also celebrating 40 years in the business, not all of which have been smooth sailing. Owner Peter Aaron bought the store in 1999, at the height of competition with chain stores, and spent four nail-biting years getting Elliott Bay back in the black.

“There were weeks when I had to borrow money from family and friends just to make payroll,” he said. Today, Elliott Bay has 20,000 square feet in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. The store hosts nearly 500 author events a year, and recently brought in a consultant to improve its café fare.

To be sure, the cost of running an independent store is formidable. Miriam Sontz, CEO of Portland’s Powell’s Books, estimates that it would take around $150,000 to open a bookstore today (depending on location and size), compared with $20,000 to $30,000 in the 1970s. (Powell’s, a 68,000-square-foot, 1-million-book behemoth, is also celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.) And startup costs don’t include the financial stress of bookstores’ rolling inventory, whose sell-through rates vary wildly. Most sellers have stories of jaw-clenching fourth quarters, when 10 days of holiday sales can spell the difference between a profit or loss for the entire year.

Those realities have come to bear at stores like St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City, which faced closure in 2011 until landlord Cooper Union agreed to a rent reduction. Nationwide, there were just 2,644 general bookstores in 2011, down 57 percent from 6,207 in 2002, according to the Library and Book Trade Almanac. U.S. Department of Commerce numbers show that total bookstore sales dropped to $15.2 billion in 2012, down from $15.3 billion in 2011 and a peak of $17.2 billion in 2007.

Booksellers point out the industry’s long history of inaccurate doomsday predictions. For example, in the 1940s, the wide availability of paperbacks was seen as a potential nail in the coffin. Stores also credit the ABA with helping to navigate the retail landscape. In November, the association inked a partnership with Canadian e-reader company Kobo that allows participating stores to make a percentage from their customers’ e-book purchases. The ABA says around 400 stores are participating, Powell’s and Tattered Cover among them.

But even with the ABA’s help, sellers admit they are facing an uphill battle. The difference is that after a half-century of industry turmoil, uphill is the only kind of battle they know. Said Elliott Bay’s Peter Aaron: “I either have enormous reserves of denial, or I’m just an inveterate optimist.”

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