Independent bookstores capture headlines in 2013

Many were sounding the death knell for independent bookstores as first Barnes & Noble and then Amazon rose to prominence. But indie stores have surprised the naysayers.

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    Tammy Heupels (l.) sits with her son Johann (center) and Bank Square Books owner Annie Philbrick (r.) in the reading area of the store in Mystic, Conn.
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Is 2013 the year of the indie bookstore?

A popular piece by the Washington Post has revived talk about the resurgence of the independent bookstore.

That piece, “Independent bookstores turn a new page on brick-and-mortar retailing,” follows the surprising success of an indie bookstore in Frederick, Md., and outlines the reasons behind the comeback of the indies.

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By now, we’ve all heard the story: Due to the dominance of the one national chain left; the vast selection, influence, and undercutting prowess of online “bully” Amazon; and the booming popularity of the supposedly print-killing e-book, independent bookstores were to go the way of the tablet (stone, not electronic, that is). 

But, as Monitor correspondent Yvonne Zipp wrote in a March 2013 cover story, “A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.” 

Independent bookstores, while not necessarily thriving, are doing just fine. More indies opened than closed this year, sales are rising, and advocates from President Obama to novelists Ann Patchett and James Patterson are fighting for the underdog by shopping indie, donating big bucks, or in the case of Patchett, opening an independent bookstores of her own.

In other words, contrary to what industry execs predicted a quarter century ago, indies are far from dying.

“Twenty-five years ago, independents were supposed to vanish when Waldenbooks showed up in malls,” writes the Washington Post. “They were supposed to vanish when Borders and Barnes & Noble came along with endless selection and comfy chairs. They were supposed to vanish when Costco started selling the latest Doris Kearns Goodwin. They were supposed to vanish when Amazon perfected low prices and fast shipments….”

Of course, we all know the punchline now: while Waldenbooks and Borders shuttered and Barnes & Noble is limping along, indies are still around.

“We are a lot like Mark Twain: The rumors of our death are a little bit exaggerated,” Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association told the Washington Post. “We have been counted out for a very long time.”

In fact, the success of indies has become the major story in publishing in 2013. The industry’s trade bible, Publishers Weekly, recently named Teicher, whose group represents independent bookstores, its person of the year. In previous years, that honor was given to E.L. James, of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, fabled foe of indies – and, notably, owner of the Washington Post, which ran the well-publicized article on the resurgence of independents.

So what’s behind the unlikely comeback? 

For starters, the popularity of e-books, which were supposed to kill print books and the stores that sold them, peaked and leveled off. As the Post pointed out, e-books sales were up 5 percent earlier this year, compared to 28 percent in 2012 and 159 percent in 2011. And what’s developed most recently is a hybrid model in which readers turn to e-books for certain genres (say, mystery or true crime) and buy traditional books for others (literary fiction, say, or cookbooks), indicating that print books are far from extinct.

What’s more, the death or slow demise of the big chain sellers, including Borders, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble – which is shuttering locations across the country and was recently in the news when its chairman unloaded millions of dollars of stock at a loss – has buoyed indies. It turns out folks still want to visit a bookstore, browse, talk to knowledgeable booksellers, even buy print books – and for that, they are turning more to independents.

Finally, indie retailers are stepping up the competition, fighting Amazon’s goliath dominance with guerilla-like savvy: taking up the mantle of “buy local”; partnering with Canadian e-book company Kobo for e-readers and digital books; and adding ancillary offerings like paid classes, literary trips, summer camps, and beer and wine for in-store events. For the first time this past Thanksgiving, indies across the country launched Indies First Day on Small Business Saturday, inviting authors to independent bookstores to promote and sell books. 

That savvy seems to be paying off, with indies grabbing the headlines for a second year in a row.

It’s far from a happy ending, however. As the New York Times cautioned in another recent piece on the state of the independent bookstore, indies aren’t out of the woods, yet. They cite dangers like a very short holiday season, dearth of blockbuster bestsellers, and deep discounting by Amazon as reasons why indies remain “wary about holiday sales.”

And while we sense more audacity than fear among indies, we can’t help but quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the secret to survival: “Be wary then, best safety lies in fear.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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