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Indie Bookstores, Once On The Verge Of Disappearing, Are Making A Comeback

Dana Brigham, manager at Brookline Booksmith, says the store has survived and outlived its mega-store competitors by focusing on the community. (qwrrty/Flickr)
Dana Brigham, manager at Brookline Booksmith, says the store has survived and outlived its mega-store competitors by focusing on the community. (qwrrty/Flickr)

Independent bookstores aren’t just back, they’re thriving. As other small retailers struggle to compete with big box stores and online shoppers, how do indie booksellers continue to attract and maintain a loyal base of customers?


Ryan Raffaelli, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Author of the working academic paper, “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores.” (@ryanlraffaelli)

Jamie Fiocco, president of the American Booksellers Association. Owner and general manager of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C. (@JamieFiocco)

Interview Highlights

On what can be learned from studying independent bookstores

Ryan Raffaelli: “It’s about community. And it’s about reshaping and rethinking what does it mean to be a retailer in the digital world when you’re trying to compete against folks like Amazon and others? Well, you know, what I see is over these eight years of going across the country, I’ve been in 26 states now and interviewed hundreds of these booksellers. Because they break the mold on what was expected, particularly around what we think about this notion and this narrative around the retail apocalypse that’s hitting a lot of brick-and-mortar stores in the country today.”

What are the ‘three C’s’? 

Ryan Raffaelli: “It’s about community, it’s about curation and it’s about convenience. So what I mean by that is, first of all, part of the secret code here is booksellers have always been heavily embedded in their communities, but they’re able particular over the last 10 years to communicate the message of shopping local and localism. A lot of people don’t realize that bookstores were some of the first to really help people recognize by shopping local, you can contribute back into your local economy.  And so they sponsored things like Small Business Saturday and the ‘shop local’ movement. And this gets coupled with a couple practices that I see being critical for their resurgence.

“And so the first one is, rather than trying to compete with Amazon on unlimited inventory and price, they actually think about … curat[ing], an inventory of books and other articles that are very specific to the individual’s taste, often linked to the tastes of those in the community, often connected to up-and-coming authors. Things that often can’t get connected to an algorithm that you would use when you were shopping on Amazon. And then this last component of convening. You know, the bookstores I’ve been in, some of them reported having hosted over 500 events a year. So they’re bringing people into these spaces, almost like this old notion of the watering hole, bringing people back to a conversation.”

On the importance of community for independent bookstores

Jamie Fiocco: “I think every bookstore really has to think about their community and how they can carve out — literally carve out a living — by being there. And we know that we have a lot of universities in our area. We also have a lot of great bookstores in our area, independent bookstores. And yes, there’s this quest for lifelong learning and the quest for children to have books at an early age, which really helps us be successful.”

On creating a ‘literary atmosphere’ for consumers

Ryan Raffaelli: “The thing you have to remember about bookstores is it is kind of a unique industry in the sense that if you go into any other establishment, it’s rare that you actually have the price printed on the product itself by somebody else. So, you know, publishers set these prices and they lock it in. And so for independent booksellers, this is a challenge in a world of Amazon, where the prices are cheaper. And they’re locked into those negotiated prices with publishers. So what I’ve seen is, is that there’s a core focus on literary culture, first. That allows the indie bookstore to remain authentic to this notion [that] they’re there for the reading experience and for readers.

“But it goes beyond that. And part of how they’ve been able to draw margin is through these different types of what they call sidelines. So a lot of these stores … you see what they call, you know, walls of literary socks, for example. You know, these are socks that you wear. They’ve got, you know, Shakespeare and Hemingway … [on] tote bags, all these other things. But these are higher margin things. So as a business school professor, you can see how they’re negotiating these thin margins on different dimensions. But again, it’s all about creating this literary atmosphere for the consumer.”

On selling other products and providing services outside of books 

Jamie Fiocco: “We want to be an inviting space. Maybe you don’t buy something every time you come in. But we do encourage the foot traffic and for people to incorporate us into their kind of daily or weekly patterns. We have a number of folks, often older folks who just, you know, they want the social aspect of being around other people. And we welcome them coming in. And there are regulars and our friends and they do buy books. They might just not do it every single time. But, yes, we want to just be a known entity. And when you do need a book, and you do need to that birthday gift on the way to the party, we can wrap it for you and just know we’re here.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Reinventing Retail” by Ryan Raffaelli

Excerpted from “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores” by Ryan Raffaelli. Copyright © 2020 by Ryan L. Raffaelli. 

Forbes: “How Independent Bookstores Beat Amazon At The Bookselling Game: Lessons Here For Every Retailer” — “For the past eight years, Harvard professor Ryan Raffaelli immersed himself in the world of independent bookstores. Concluding his study, he just released a working paper, entitled ‘Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores,’ that summarizes the findings from his extensive research, which included a series of interviews and focus groups, visits to bookstores in 26 states, and a detailed analysis of newspaper and trade journal articles.

“While this working paper has immediate application to bookstore owners and managers, its implications go much further. It provides a road map for any retailer —independent or otherwise — into how to survive, even thrive against the competitive onslaught of Amazon.

“‘My research examines how industries, organizations, and business leaders reinvent themselves in the face of radical technological change,’ Raffelli writes. ‘In the context of retail, seismic shifts are affecting the way consumers engage with online, big box, and local retailers. Independent bookstores provide a story of hope for community-led businesses.'”

The New York Times: “Bookstores Find Growth as ‘Anchors of Authenticity’” — “On a recent Sunday evening in the basement of McNally Jackson Independent Booksellers in New York’s Nolita neighborhood, some 40 people gathered in a 12-by-20-foot space surrounded by movable bookshelves to hear Julia Phillips discuss her novel, ‘Disappearing Earth.’

“Alex Unthank, a 32-year-old artist and museum educator living in Harlem, was in attendance. She treks downtown regularly just for these types of events at the store.

“‘It’s the community,’ said Ms. Unthank, who added that she appreciated the book curation and customer service, too. ‘You can come in and have a conversation with someone that’s a like-minded person or is interested in having a dialogue.’

“Her experience helps explain the continuing resurgence of independent bookstores even though Amazon contributed to the demise of its rival Borders and forced the largest American bookstore chain, Barnes & Noble, to shut stores in a turnaround mode.”

The Christian Science Monitor: “Comeback story: a new chapter for indie bookstores” — “Shaw Taylor, owner of Rodney’s Bookstore in Cambridge, has been selling books for almost 20 years. But he’s been an observer of independent bookstores and the topsy-turvy industry for even longer.

“‘Cambridge in the ’70s had 35 bookstores,’ Mr. Taylor says. ‘Now I think there’s probably 10 to 15.’

“While their numbers certainly aren’t what they once were, independent bookstores continue to defend their peculiar niche against slim profit margins, large chain bookstores, and the rising tide of e-book vendors. (Some online services, like Libro, encourage subscribers to support local stores.) In the past decade, the number of independent bookstores in the United States has grown by more than 50%, from 1,651 stores to more than 2,500, according to Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer of the American Booksellers Association. Last year, sales increased by 5%, says Mr. Cullen.

“Observers say a special blend of local flavor, dedication to physical books, accessibility to author tours, and a business model that includes other revenue streams has helped to keep the lights on for many independent bookstores.”

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