Hope for Independent Bookstores

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

I was hooked by the title of Husna Haq’s recent article, “Indy Bookstores Are on the Rise: What’s Behind Their Comeback?” in The Christian Science Monitor. A reporter for the online magazine since 2009, she has been around to observe the waves of change in the publishing industry precipitated by the introduction of large book chains, e-books, and the monopoly-hopeful, Amazon. I had to learn more.Christian bookstore interior

According to the general market’s American Booksellers Association (ABA), independent bookstores have increased 25 percent since 2009. Haq went on to quote Yvonne Zipp’s Monitor article “The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores” two years earlier in which Yvonne said, “Independent bookstores are what urbanists call ‘third places,’ like farmers’ markets, that add to a community’s sense of identity. And like farmers’ markets, some customers come for the atmosphere….”

These writers attribute the comeback to the closure of Borders, increased reading among American adults, and the Buy Local movement.

Josh McDowell was the featured speaker at a gathering of church bookstore managers and staff at ICRS. Although his suggestions were addressed to church bookstores, they are relevant for any Christian bookstore. He stressed the importance of building relationships. See the full recap of what he had to say in this Christian Retailing article, “Josh McDowell Offers Charge to Church Bookstores,” by Ginny McCabe.

Hmm. That sounds similar to observations in the general market. Further investigation led to two contributing factors that provide hope for independent bookstores, which the big-box stores and Amazon aren’t geared to provide.

Relationship in community.

Christine Onaroti, owner of indie bookstore WORD in Brooklyn told Husna Haq: “These days, community-building is the most important key to an indie bookstore’s success.” It makes sense because reading books is relational, a sharing of thought, experience, or story. When we immerse ourselves in a book we love, we tell others about it. And the staff at indie bookstores usually are knowledgeable lovers of books and enhance the atmosphere of community as well.

The other factor that bolsters hope for independent bookstores is the leveling off of e-book sales and the increase in print books sales. Digital natives, that is millennials and post-millennials, prefer reading print books for pleasure and learning. Read more about this in Michael S. Rosenwald’s article “Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right.” in The Washington Post.

Preference for print books is on the rise.

Eric Weiner quotes Maryanne Wolf, professor at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She studies the cognitive process of reading, and while she fully embraces both digital and print forms of reading, she had a warning about e-readers. Results of one study reported that young students, the digital natives, absorbed what they read better on paper than on screen, partly because they were less distracted. Read Eric’s complete article “The Technology of Books Has Changed but Bookstores Are Hanging In” on NPR.org. Ironically, sales of paper notebooks have risen too, even in the digital world of apps and electronic note keeping.

How can authors contribute to building relationships and community atmosphere in their local indie and Christian bookstore?

  • Talk to the manager about starting a book group in the store. Participants would buy copies from the store. Several groups could take place on different days of the week. Suggesting books having a Christian worldview offers added benefit.
  • Visit the bookstore frequently and make a deliberate effort to chat with other patrons. Contribute to a warm, friendly environment.
  • Offer to do an event in which you share some of what you have learned in research for your next book. This has obvious benefit for your book promotion as well.
  • Volunteer to help with events the storeowner is planning.
  • Recruit author friends to do a book signing or event.

I found the resilience of independent bookstores to be exhilarating. How about you? And print books are a technology that’s been around for a very long time. We’ve conditioned ourselves to think the newest thing is better for every situation, but the findings in these articles, and so many more, offer reassurance that the local bookstore and print books are still valued.

What do these findings mean to you? How else might you support your local bookstore?

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  1. “Reading books is relational.” Amen!

    Over the years, three Christian book stores in our area have closed. Here’s hoping for a comeback. I’m willing to drive a distance to Buy Local 🙂

  2. peter says:

    Hallelujah. I heard of the demise of Christian Family Bookstores and all the press around it and felt that reverting to a not-for-profit would be a disaster as it needs to fund its charity effort from profit, whilst sharpening its operational pencil to be best of breed. I am absolutely convinced there is a way to make B & M stores work. In the 80’s and 90’s, every car started to look alike, in pursuit of the ultimate in aerodynamics, but automakers needed to step back and differentiate on other things – style, features, engines. Well the problem with online is that it is the ultimate in efficiency, but a dinosaur in terms of experience. The reason this blog works is because it taps into the same thing that Indie is advocating – human touch, connectedness, dialogue. Sites without that will die alongside bookstores that don’t learn how to network effectively, which means using IT to complement, never as a primary or self-standing channel. Banks learnt that 15 years ago. Now bookstores are getting it. When I was involved in bank strategy, a think-tank in Pennsylvania avenue tried to work out why the porn industry was outliving the dot.com world – they found that instant gratification (sorry, not trying to be bluesy), was the secret. So banks pulled back from the edge to use online to complement personal service, because in a commoditised world only service and touch, and I mean only that, will secure advantage for a competitor. Price was never a differentiator. Product feature isn’t either, because of commoditisation. Now channel isn’t either, because the Internet is over-traded and commoditised by everyone bandwagoning the same well-worn path. So what will set competitors apart? One of my books looks at the future of business and a shift towards smaller, niche players, like the ages-old butcher, baker and candlestick maker, who relied on being deeply connected to their communities and specialized in their service e.g. the baker would make to order, craft with care, etc. So now Indies like Mr Bottomley in UK (no relationship to Bummer, Rachelle), are finding that connectedness was God’s high road after all. What a revelation, people actually do matter in a needs-based economy. Who would have thought? Thanks Mary.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Thanks for your interesting examples, Peter. Hints that the consumer and reader pendulum beginning to swing back are evident. Supporting our local Christian and Independent bookstores by contributing to the community atmosphere will be healthy for all of us.

  3. What wonderful news!
    * If you’re a blogger, why not do bookstore reviews, along with book reviews? (Granted it does presuppose at least a partially local audience, to be successful, but maybe building a local blog audience would be a good thing.)
    * Bumper stickers and t-shirts. No kidding. Maybe not tattoos.
    * Have a few copies of the store’s business card on hand, and at church or other social events, if you meet book lovers, hand them out. The cards should have a map on the back; not everyone does google maps.
    * Create a bridge between the store and local history groups, so that the staff become knowledgeable about their community – help make the store the go-to place for neighborhood, borough, or town history.

  4. Mary, you got me thinking about my patterns regarding relational here at home. When I go into the grocery store, I usually want to get in and get out. Let the words be few, except with my girls. The grocery store is a chore … for me. But I have developed a relationship with several of the check-out ladies. They know my family, smile when they see us, and I so enjoy that. But I totally shift gears when it comes to walking into the local bookstore. Walking into a bookstore gives me a happy feeling. Due to living in a rural area, the closest bookstore to me is Half Price Books. When I go there, I don’t mind staying or sharing a review. The Christian fiction section is very small … so you are usually back to back with someone else. That always opens an opportunity. 🙂 My girls and I still prefer a print book … something beautiful about a print book. The only time I prefer a digital reader is at night, for the light and larger print size (for my aging eyes).

    • Mary Keeley says:

      I can so relate, Shelli. Whenever I walk into a bookstore, it never fails that I wish I’d allowed more time to linger there. It behooves us to contribute to the community atmosphere. And isn’t it interesting that millennials and post-millennials, those about the age of your daughters, prefer print books for pleasure reading and learning, because those groups are all about community. Wouldn’t it be great if these younger groups become the impetus that swings the consumer pendulum back to healthier brick and mortar stores.

      • Yes, yes, Mary! And my girls will absolutely not part with their print books. They won’t resale them. They won’t give them away. They love them …. I’m the same. 🙂 I’ve made decorations out of most of my hard cover books … beautiful stacks of them under my end tables, etc.

  5. We have a wonderful little Indy bookstore in our home town. A Book For All Seasons. I order print copy books for my 3 sons there and for gifts, but I pretty much only buy e-books for myself. I like the atmosphere and the coffee shop next door and the fact that I can order anything in to the store and then go and pick it up and say hi to someone I know.

  6. Another thought – sorry for the additional comment, to ill to write much at one time –
    * Encourage affiliation between the bookstore and local art/craft groups. Granted, floor and wall space are limited, but small juried shows, rotating on, say, a monthly basis, will increase foot traffic, and the store could get a cut from any works sold.
    * Help find ways to make the store wheelchair-friendly, and help train staff to find ways to help handicapped customers. You would not believe how hard it can be to navigate the world in a chair, and how unwelcoming many places are.

    • peter says:

      yep, all good … just needs imagination. You know, its like doing evangelism for books, which is like doing evangelism for Jesus, which is … yeah, yeah. Bill Hybels has made some great points about relational evangelism after reading about what Voltaire called an ugly little Jew, a fellow by the name of Paul who argued, “if by any means we might save some, even if it means stirring up your local synagogue). Its really the same method Jesus used before we cranked it all up with showmanship … guess which one produces long-term loyalty in both God’s kingdom and in book stores. Bro, what exactly is your health crisis? I have a doctor friend who has some really interesting and evidently pretty effective strategies for lots of health issues. Maybe he can help?

      • peter says:

        Oh just in case you think I agree with Voltaire, who was an offensive so and so, no, I was just contrasting a great life with the disparagement of a life that thought he was great. I follow Paul as He followed Christ. Even wrote a novel about him and his profound life. I don’t think he was an easy man to live with or to understand, as Peter confirmed, but few men in all of history shook the world as he did. Thank God for his faithfulness.

      • Interesting point…and I would be interested in your MD friend’s thoughts – could you drop me a note through my blog?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Excellent suggestions, Andrew! Thank you.

      I pray you feel better as the day goes on.

      • Thank you Mary, and especially for the prayers. This has been an “una salus victus nullam sperare salutem” kind of day – and it sure does put a different perspective on writing. When every word hurts to type, one does learn to be economical.

  7. Starting a book group IN the store. Hmmmm. Now THAT is an interesting idea.
    I should pray about that. Because I am brave enough to actually suggest that, and help run it. And what a good way to promote a diverse reading list, AND promote my friend’s books!!
    My town has one Christian bookstore and well, is keeping Amish fiction alive. 😀 But, they also have a healthy cross section of selections and are very fond of Dee Henderson, Dani Pettrey, DiAnn Mills and Ronie Kendig. Oh, and a man named Richard Mabrey!
    I wonder who will approach them about a book club…?

  8. This is good news, Mary. Sort of like “You’ve Got Mail” in reverse. 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Yes, it’s encouraging, but we need to be praying for greater exposure for Christian books in these stores, where they’re not relegated to a sequestered corner of the store. I had that movie playing in my mind as I was writing the post. Let’s hope the pendulum is beginning to swing in reverse, as you put it.

  9. I forwarded this post to our local bookstore. I think they’ll find it encouraging.

  10. We have a fabulous independent bookstore with an owner who always host me with a book signing. And yes, it’s very much a community thing – right downtown on our small Main Street. She has many things in her store besides books, but she treats each customer as an individual and is always encouraging and uplifting. Now all we need are doctors who make house calls and all will be well.

  11. This is great news. The one local indie we had in town closed a few years ago, as did the two Christian bookstores we had in the area. One of my favorite things to do when we visit North Carolina is visit the independent bookstores in Manteo and on Ocracoke Island. This year, I had a chance to talk to a woman who was asking about Southern fiction authors and was able to share my love of Karen White’s books.