“When Borders closed three years ago, independent bookstores were the only remaining option for buying books. For the past 5-6 years, these stores have been at the forefront of the ‘shop local’ movement,” says Hut Landon, the executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers (NCIB).
Bookstores today face stiff competition and pressures from multiple fronts—online retailers, specifically Amazon, eBooks, rising rents and other business expenses, and so on. Yet, some of the smaller corner bookstores have managed to adapt and thrive.
“Localism encourages local businesses and ensures that the majority of tax dollars stay within the community. Landon adds, “Bookstore owners are smarter now than before, and are more technology savvy.” Many former presidents of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), who met at the Winter Institute in February 2015, mirrored this opinion. They also welcomed young entrepreneurs who brought fresh ideas and business knowledge, calling them the future of the business.
Measured by the number of new members to the ABA, there has been over 5% growth nationally in 2014. The Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA) lists over 150 member bookstores in the Bay Area, and their sales revenue is up by 7% in 2012, following the closure of Borders stores. Since then, the market has held steady at about 2-3% increase in sales every year.
But is this trend truly an indication of change or a blip in the market? Landon is optimistic. “Ten years ago, when a bookstore closed, it stayed closed,” says Landon. “Now we see more stores selling to new owners” instead of dying out, which to him is a sure sign of a healthy industry. New owners bring in fresh business ideas as well. Praveen Madan, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, had befriended Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler’s Books in Palo Alto, over their shared passion for books. When Kepler decided to close the iconic Kepler’s Books for the second time in six years in late 2011 (it had been saved once through community funding in 2005), Madan stepped in. He initiated the Kepler’s 2020 Project, and invited a cross-section of 80 interested parties from the literary community, including other booksellers, publishers, authors, journalists, and members of the community, to brainstorm ways to reinvent the store. The result was the creation of a nonprofit entity, Peninsula Arts and Lectures (PAL), which funds and hosts community events at the for-profit bookstore.
So What Has Changed? Creative Solutions
Bookselling is a business, and stores must bring in revenue to stay in business. To help stores compete, the ABA and the nine regional associations including the NCIBA provide extensive resources and support to booksellers through educational workshops on business skills and best practices, and networking opportunities. Careful curation that reflects local tastes is also key in bringing customers in. Landon adds that knowledgeable staff let you “have a conversation with an individual—not an algorithm.”
Bookstores are finding creative ways of adapting to changes in the economy and customer expectations. The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) is encouraging staff at member stores to visit other bookstores in the area in an effort to learn best business practices from each other’s experiences. Bookstores are also increasing their online presence. CityLights, Diesel Books, Moe’s Books, Kepler’s Books, and others utilize their website and social media presence extensively to promote authors, sell books, and publicize literary events.
Community support for meaningful businesses has also never been stronger. Borderlands in San Francisco announced its sponsorship program with special member benefits in February as a last ditch effort to stay afloat, and raised the required amount in 48 hours. Granada Books in Santa Barbara launched a crowd funding campaign in mid-March to raise $50k to help keep its doors open, and raised over $10,000 in three days. But these are only temporary fixes.
Not all communities may have the commitment or financial resources to support a bookstore. The key is in finding other ways to bring in customers and revenue. For instance, some bookstores rent their space to book clubs or special events for additional revenue.
Location is key. Landon calls it the “Main Street versus Chain Street” mentality. Independent bookstores tend to be in areas with high foot traffic, encouraging customers to stroll in, talk to the friendly staff, get personalized reading recommendations, catch up with neighbors, and entertain themselves with a free event or two.
Community events hosted at the store are invaluable to give customers a reason to come in. Providing a literary gathering place for the community is one of the most important goals of the bookstore. Praveen Madan explains, “The days of only selling books through brick-and-mortar stores is over. Only if there is community engagement is there a future for the store. Otherwise it will go the way of record and video stores.”
With their limited budget, many stores struggle to provide free events. This is where the nonprofit model instituted by Madan at Kepler’s Books makes sense. Peninsula Arts and Letters (PAL) organizes free and ticketed literary events and fundraisers that are hosted in a large dedicated space within Kepler’s Books. The nonprofit generates funds to support its staff and the numerous literary events, and indirectly increases book sales. With the help of this innovative non-profit model, Kepler’s has successfully raised the starting wage from $9 per hour to $13 per hour and is hoping to become the first bookstore in the country to reach $15 per hour within the next year.
Emphasizing its social commitment, PAL also organizes literary events at local schools. Praveen explains, “Fifty percent of American adults do not read a book after high school,” mostly because they never understood their own preferences, and are now overwhelmed by the choices. Madan believes that bookstores, like libraries, can meaningfully contribute to the social mission of engaging children early to become lifelong readers.
Madan shared his future plans for Kepler’s Books. He hopes to either create a single nonprofit entity merging the bookstore and PAL, or to initiate community ownership of the store by selling stock directly to customers, once the Jobs Act of 2011 is implemented. Madan is also working on a gifting program with GiftLit.com that allows customers to choose a selection of books to be delivered over a year, much like wine or fruit baskets.
The true renaissance is in how independent bookstores are learning to adapt to changing times while staying true to their literary commitment, and in how the community is responding to them. In addition to revenue generation, successful bookstores enable increased readership and meaningfully engage the reading and writing communities.
Increasing community support is evident: the Bike Coalition of San Francisco is organizing a bike tour of independent bookstores to commemorate the day this year. Another event to watch out for is the inaugural Bay Area Book Festival on June 6-7, featuring 300 authors, 150 exhibitors including various Bay Area bookstores, and Project Lacuna, a unique volunteer-led participatory art installation made from over fifty thousand donated books.
Lakshmi Warrier is a writer and editor completing her Post Graduate Certificate in Writing with UC Berkeley Extension. With a background in science and genetics, she also undertakes projects that further health and wellness, education, and nonprofit endeavors.