Some fear iPads and Kindles will replace physical books, and online stores like Amazon will drive all brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business. But according to Zachary Karabell’s newest article for Slate, “Why Indie Bookstores Are on the Rise Again ,” local bookstores are seeing an increase in sales even while Barnes & Noble struggles:
Only a few years ago, observers projected that the rise of chain stores and Amazon would lead to the vast shrinkage of independent bookstores. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20 percent since the depths of the recession, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014.
… Both Borders and Barnes & Noble were drawn into a negative vortex that destroyed the former and has crippled the latter. Not only did they become public companies, but they positioned themselves as high-growth companies, focused on innovation and disruption. That forced them to compete with the growth company par excellence in their space: Amazon. It also forced them to pursue high sales volume at the expense of inventories. Those strategies, as it turned out, were precisely wrong for the actual business they were in: selling books to a selective audience. Which is precisely what independent bookstores are good at.
Indie bookstores have an important niche in the book-selling market. But in order to keep it, they must continue to cultivate a few important characteristics of their shop—characteristics that I think book-buyers will continue to flock back for. They must:
1. Embrace Smallness
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Americans love an underdog. Joe Pinsker recently pointed this out in an Atlantic article, titled “The Quirks of Smallness “: he referenced a Georgetown study published this spring, which showed that “small brands benefit when they publicize their size relative to a larger competitor nearby.” How? Pinsker explains:
Firms may already be aware that the narrative of the underdog carries immense sway with consumers —researchers suspect people are drawn to companies whose stories they perceive to mirror their own experiences. But this study expands that: “Consumers may want to punish stronger competitors…[and watch] them fail,” the study’s authors write. And this doesn’t just have to do with products, like coffee, that benefit from being seen as authentic; a local electronics store could theoretically sell more batteries by simply playing up its stiff competition with Radioshack.
It’s true that you can’t compete with Amazon. But the good news is that bookstores really don’t have to: rather than trying to outsell the big chain stores, they can outsmart them by marketing their own smallness, the way they fill a unique niche in their community or market.
It’s also true that a lot of young people and hipsters are increasingly attracted to small, local businesses . They appreciate the local charm and flair, the fact that these stores offer something they can’t get elsewhere. Bookstores that worry too much about their size may lose the commercial benefit of their own smallness.
2. Cultivate Quirks & Personality
One of my favorite bookstores of all time  is tucked up behind the U.S. Capitol near Eastern Market. The owner, Jim Toole, has piled his small store full of old, used, and new books—all for an excellent price. The whole store is filled with personality: the bookshelves feature handwritten signs and directories, often with arrows to indicate important sections or popular authors. Down in the front, by the cash register, Toole has a list of “Rules,” i.e. words prohibited on the premises: “Oh my God (or gosh),” “neat,” “sweet,” “like” (underlined several times), “you know,” “totally,” “whatever,” “perfect,” “that’s a good question,” “Kindle,” “Amazon,” and “have a good one.” Toole says when people use these words, he tells them to “get a thesaurus and stop being so mentally lame.”
Without Toole’s handwritten signs, and his own sarcastic yet knowledgeable personality, Capitol Hill Books would be a somewhat rundown, poky bookstore crammed full of claustrophobic piles of books. It would be too daunting a place to really be charming. It’s his character, and the character he’s brought the store, that makes it wonderful. On my last visit, he took the time to mend the binding of an old volume I’d picked up, before selling it to me. That sort of personalized touch can make all the difference—it turns one-time visitors into avid customers.
3. Join the Localists
More indie bookstores should publicize and promote their image as part of the local community. There are several ways in which to do this. Many local bookstores I’ve visited promote local authors, and it’s a neat idea—though I think bookstores should always vet the books first, and make sure they’re not recommending something silly or stupid. That’s hardly a way to keep customers coming back, even if it’s part of a seemingly “local” ethos.
But more bookstores should take notes from indie coffee shops, many of which work hard to feature other local company’s products. There’s a coffee shop in Alexandria, Virginia, that sells sweet and savory pies, empanadas, and gluten-free baked goods—all from different local bakeries. They also sell local art. I’ve wondered in the past if bookstores could do something similar—either by selling local products in-house, or by setting up a discount system with neighboring local businesses (if you buy coffee next door, you get a 10 percent discount on books, and vice versa). Many coffee shops host music nights, featuring local artists. If the music had a soft and pleasant ambience, this could encourage people to browse, shop, and read. There are several local D.C. pubs and coffee houses that host weekly trivia nights and speaker Q&A’s. Both events could be of interest to local readers.
If they have room, some bookstores could have a special area or room for book clubs to reserve and host meetings, thus turning the store into a gathering area, much like local coffee shops will do for various meetings and clubs. There’s a coffee shop in Meridian, Idaho, that created special personalized mugs for one of their favorite local clubs. (It was either an Old Men’s Club, or a Chess Club. I can’t remember which.) These sorts of gestures—reaching out to customers, giving them a sense of ownership and belonging in the space, encouraging local community events—can help foster business, camaraderie, and community.
4. Sell Old & Rare Books
A lot of bookstores need to consider what they offer that Amazon and large chains cannot. Vibe and character are definitely part of this, but content matters too. There are some small bookstore that only offer new books. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I fear it may hurt their sales long-term. Many people, when they visit a small bookstore, are looking for a gem: something old, something rare, a volume they can’t find in Barnes & Noble and are unlikely to find online.
There’s a bookstore back in Nampa, Idaho, that does exactly this: Twice Sold Tales has a large variety of used books. Some are just old paperbacks, available for a pretty cheap price. But some of their other books are quite rare—first editions from the 19th and early 20th centuries, some books even from the mid-to-late 18th century. Their store offers a variety of first editions, rare children’s books, and old illustrated Bibles. I found a similar store in Annapolis, Maryland last year—their vintage books were a bit pricier, but I was able to find some lovely vintage sheet music for a good price.
These are the sorts of things that people like to buy and treasure, to build a collection with. Many will gladly spend extra money for that first edition of Brave New World, rather than buying a new edition from Amazon or B&N.
5. Foster “Browsability”
“Browsability” helps bookstores achieve a “serendipity effect”: that moment when a reader stumbles across a book that captures their attention and excitement, something they weren’t expecting or didn’t know existed. This is why many people continue to visit physical bookstores, rather than merely browsing books online. When they shop for a book on Amazon, they usually already have an intended purchase in mind—textbooks, bestsellers, recommended reads, etc. But when they visit a brick-and-mortar bookstore, they want to be surprised. They want to find something they couldn’t ever find somewhere else. This is why the old and rare books are important—but it’s also why “browsability” is important.
Browsability includes a structure of organization with nice traffic flow: a system that enables people to stream comfortably through a space, yet also encourages them to stop and take their time—to pick up books, flip through them, and even read a chapter. Front-facing books help bring prominence to important titles—but free-standing tables (for bestsellers or staff recommendations, for instance) can help cultivate this effect, as well.
In a small space, like Toole’s shop, it’s important to help compensate for the cramped space with good directions. Toole’s handwritten signs help people find what they want—but they also help people find what they didn’t know they wanted. You may be looking for Dickens, and then get distracted by the big “Dostoevsky” sign, with its large markered arrow jabbing toward a pile of books near the ceiling. Some minutes later, you’ll be absorbed in Crime and Punishment, and decide to purchase it before you ever return to your search for Bleak House.
Browsability, thus, isn’t just about a space’s structure—it’s about the curiosity it fosters. Books that are assembled in a lackadaisical or generic fashion will hardly inspire browsing. But books and bookshelves that intrigue, that catch the eye and curiosity, will continue to tantalize readers and encourage buyers.
None of these things can guarantee a bookstore’s success. But they are the sorts of things customers look for. They’re the sorts of things that Amazon, and even Barnes & Noble, can’t fully offer. Hopefully, as Americans young and old continue to buy books , they’ll see the benefits of buying books local, and will go back for more.