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5 Things Every Local Bookstore Should Do

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 [1],” 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 [2]“: 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 [3]—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 [4]. 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 [5] 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 [6], they’ll see the benefits of buying books local, and will go back for more.

Follow @gracyolmstead [7]

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "5 Things Every Local Bookstore Should Do"

#1 Comment By philadlephialawyer On September 11, 2014 @ 9:54 am

I love small indie bookstores!

I love browsing. When I am on trip, I make it a point to check out new used bookstores and re visit old ones.

The prices are a big draw too. Even in the NYC area, the few used, indie bookstores sell massive history tomes (relatively new, old, in between, scholarly, popular, hardbound, paperback etc) for a tiny fraction of their original prices.

I wouldn’t mind shopping at B nad N, but the prices of the books I am interested in are sky high (a short, almost perfunctory non fiction book, say 200 pages or so, when the fluff is removed) can sell for almost 30 dollars. At a used bookstore, I can get a classic, in hardbound, like Richard Cobb’s “Revolutionary Armies,” for six bucks, or “Lee’s Lieutenants,” all three volumes, in trade paperback, for twenty bucks.

B and N also carries what, to me, is just so much crap…vampire books, teen relationship stories, and so on, and non book book “tie ins” (little knick knacks and toys and such), and so even though the stores are big, the selection for quality fiction and non fiction is not really that great.

I only hope it is true that they are making a comeback. I know some of them get by by having an internet presence themselves.

#2 Comment By Rambler88 On September 11, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

Excellent advice–particularly that about selling used books. Why leave that market to Half-Price Books? I like Half-Price, but the fire-sale atmosphere sends a message that books are on the way out. I don’t even think that’s true. Used booksellers–if they know their merchandise–could pay more, charge more and still offer bargains. (I occasionally see people with mobile ISBN readers going through the shelves at Half-Price and filling baskets. They’re usually buying books in a particular specialty, but I’ve worked in a used bookstore, and buy lots of used books, and I’m sure I could profitably turn around a number of the books I see at Half-Price.)

And I would add: embrace the Web. You don’t even need to mess with a website and running your own e-commerce tools. Look at Biblio.com (specially recommended, on the basis of recent experience), as well as Abebooks and Alibris. I’ve bought a raft of used books recently from dealers who sell through these sites and don’t even have a Web site of their own.

There’s nothing like browsing shelves, but the Web has introduced a whole new type of browsing that’s equally wonderful: searching for an out-of-print title you want, and being able to order it immediately, regardless of the location of the seller, without having to spend years combing bookstore shelves for it.

Depending on your specialties, aptitudes, and other circumstances, the Web can also enable you to do business from a more affordable (and profitable) and less precarious location than larger cities offer.

#3 Comment By Mitchell Freedman On September 12, 2014 @ 12:00 am

Do we think that if the independent, small bookstores also operated as non-profits, that would also help? That way, people may donate money to the institution, and receive a tax deduction, and in return the local bookshop becomes a bit more involved in the community as a charity, i.e. providing books to underprivileged schools and students, hosting speakers on public topics, organizing reading clubs and the like. In a moment that is post-corporate behemoth in the brick-mortar-book-biz, maybe this grow local can work and create a different culture for the public that still believes in books…

#4 Comment By cka2nd On September 12, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

Our local science fiction, fantasy and horror bookstore sells both new and used editions but the area’s premier independent bookstore only sells new editions. I wonder if bookstores dedicated to particular genres find the combination of new and used easier or if it’s just something “fans” expect that “customers” don’t?

Next time I’m at said premier independent bookstore I’ll have to have a word with them about how much worse the “Browsability” of its Sales and Clearance sections are since their resent reset.

#5 Comment By rebecca On September 12, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

I started giving up on big chain bookstores when I went into BAM one day, a couple of years ago, and asked for any book by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. The girl behind the counter looked at me real funny and said she had never heard of him. I asked to speak to her manager. He, a young man that I took to be at least a college student if not a graduate, gave me the same response. I thought that maybe I was not pronouncing it right, so I said “he was the famous Russian author that wrote the “Gulag Archipelago”. Both the two young male managers and the girl from behind the counter gave me blank stares. Then they started looking through their computer system, which was also seemingly as ignorant, as it did not have any title by that name or by any author spelled remotely like “Alexander Solzhenitsyn”. I was flabbergasted, and walked out right then. I never have done business with them since then, and tend to stay out of any big bookseller stores since that date.

However, I do order from Amazon quite frequently. Its search engine knows who Alexander Solzhenitsyn is quite well, as well as all his titles. As far as rare books go, I agree that Abebooks is another good site.

I have also gone to a local used bookstore, which is fairly large as indie bookstores go. It’s in a big warehouse area, and has different sections where you can curl up in a comfortable chair and read a little if you want to. The days I went there, there was a bustling crowd of customers of all ages. I found a book about Thomas Merton there that I probably wouldn’t have searched for in Amazon’s search engine, but was glad to have stumbled upon it in the indie store, just browsing around. The price was right too, especially for a hard-bound book.

There seemingly is a place for both the local indie store and efficient, well-inventoried online stores such as Amazon.

Stores such as BAM cannot compete at all; both the average indie bookstore employee and Amazon’s search engine know who Alexander Solzhenitsyn is, whereas all BAM seemingly had to offer was teen romances and books about knitting.

#6 Comment By Brian On September 12, 2014 @ 5:49 pm

This is great to hear. I’m trying not to be too much of a grouchy old man, but I really can’t get behind the Nook and Kindle. I don’t get the appeal. Nothing more comforting than a book in your hands; no worries about batteries, recharging, or getting sand in the thing. And if you leave it on the train you’re only out ten bucks or so. Plus they just smell right.

I live on the Upper East Side in NYC, and there’s actually a local bookstore one block away. I’m embarrassed to say that I forget – every time – that it’s there, and instead walk all the way to Barnes & Nobles, about a half mile away. Thanks for the reminder to check my local shop first.

#7 Comment By Rob Stove On September 14, 2014 @ 2:28 am

A finely written, well researched, and genuinely useful article. But then, from Mrs. Olmstead one would expect no less.

#8 Comment By Rambler88 On September 14, 2014 @ 4:07 am

Jeff Duntemann put up two interesting posts on the present and future of bookselling and publishing in his blog [8] (August 17th and 18th). They cover the role of used bookstores, and a number of other topics.

Duntemann himself is an interesting guy, whom I think many TAC readers would appreciate (not least as a congenial break from the politics and other loaded topics). He’s written on computer technology for something like thirty years, and has also published some excellent science fiction (some of it with an additional appeal for religious, particularly Catholic, readers). He has experience with publishing as well.

#9 Comment By JonPatrick On September 14, 2014 @ 7:40 am

I live in Lewiston Maine and next door in Auburn we have Artios a used bookstore which seems to be following some of these guidelines e.g. hand lettered signs, at the door you are met by a friendly dog whom you are allowed to give one treat. It is the kind of place where you walk in planning to look for a certain book and walk out 2 or 3 hours later with 5 other books forgetting what you originally came for.

#10 Comment By nomorewaryouprats On September 16, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

I am skeptical about this notion of a renaissance in independent bookselling. First, one could say of the twenty percent growth in numbers of these sellers that this new vocation is what they have been reduced to after their full-time job with bennies vanished after 2008. Second, it is very doubtful one often finds “gems” at the independents that are not already for sale online–it is no trick to find the obscurest titles and editions at biblio.com and the like, the exception being utter rarities. Third, with comparatively little overhead online vendors wield a huge competitive price advantage over their brick and mortar peers. None of this is to say that a skilled bookseller can’t thrive in the physical marketplace in the right market with the right niche goods, but to argue this makes for a return to the robust sales of two decades ago is premature. Rather, it is another visible sign of retrenchment in the overall economy.

#11 Comment By Jonathan On October 9, 2014 @ 9:53 pm

Small bookstores? Let’s see. The one in my neighborhood is only open on Saturdays and at other times one must call for an appointment. In the Hamlets upstate they are intermittently open on Saturdays. The principals of one hit the road selling at book fairs that is how they make their money. One of these stores that sold books, clothing and other interesting oddities has recently closed its doors. The couple that owned this enterprise makes their living at crafts fairs. Perhaps antiquarian booksellers like art gallery owners are hobbyists and their businesses used as tax right offs. Once I had a long conversation with a independent bookstore owner in Houston. He was raving about the Strand bookstore in the Greenwich Village are of New York. Well they had at one time a wonderful annex downtown near my job. But alas closed its doors.

Are independent bookstores generally robust enterprises? I think not. But they probably have greater potential selling online than the occasional walk-ins.

#12 Comment By Alise Harper On June 23, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

I own a local bookstore and have noticed less activity in my store and am wanting to know what else I should do to help bring in more people. I really liked your comment about joining the localists and promoting local authors. I think this is a great idea, this will help the local authors and bring more people to my store. I will definitely have to try this out! Thanks for the great advice!

#13 Comment By Joy Butler On January 30, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

I agree that bookstores where you can buy books in person provide a browsing effect that enables you to find books that you were unaware of for purchase. Online bookstores could also create something to foster this so that that you can read summaries of book titles to find something new for you to read. There are also book review websites out there that evaluate your tastes to help recommend books for you. This could be a great way to market books online.