ARLINGTON, Va. — Get on Twitter. Add a wine bar. Do as one
bookstore owner did and rent out space for birthday parties.
Or, as a veteran store owner from Kansas tartly
suggested, just sell books.
More than 500 independent booksellers debated their next
step last week at the Winter Institute, the annual jamboree that is also attended by
publishers who go to mingle with their customers and promote their most
promising coming titles.
But this event belongs to independents, whose surviving
members withstood first the expansion of the big book chains, and later the
recession. Lately, they have watched as former powerhouses like Borders have faltered,
while wondering what the troubles of their old adversary mean for them.
“We know now that in the world of physical bookselling,
bigness is no longer viewed as an asset,” said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, which
has independent stores in South Florida, Westhampton Beach and the Cayman
Islands. “It’s about selection and service and ambiance. Now we’re finding a
situation where the marketplace is getting back to reality.”
Not everyone here was so confident. While the number of
independent bookstores has stabilized after years of decline, according to
membership in their national trade association, the stores are still fighting
some of the same forces that caused their ranks to diminish years ago. Amazon still rules online
bookselling, while Barnes &
Noble, the biggest of the book chains, is retooling itself for the
Now more independent booksellers, whose stores account
for about 10 percent of the industry’s retail market overall, are trying to
move their own transformation along by imagining ways to supplement their
printed-book business with online sales and more lucrative side businesses.
“We have to figure out how we stay in the game,” said
Beth Puffer, the director of the Bank Street Bookstore in Manhattan. “You have
to rethink your whole business model, because the old ways really aren’t going
to cut it anymore.”
Running an independent bookstore has lately become a much
more complicated endeavor. Owners are grappling with the new realities of
online bookselling, Web design and the nuances of using social media for
promotion. (Less so for the Twitter-mad younger generation of bookstore owners
who grew up with the Internet.)
Matt Norcross, the owner of McLean & Eakin
Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., instructed a crowd at the Crystal
Gateway Marriott here on Friday how to set up a store Web site to sell both
print and e-books in order to lure some customers away from Amazon. Many stores
have recently begun selling e-books on their Web sites through Google, frequently at the
same prices Amazon charges, but they have struggled to get the word out to
“It’s important for us to figure out how to communicate
these things to our customers,” Mr. Norcross said. “A lot of customers don’t
Naftali Rottenstreich, an owner of Red Fox Books
in Glens Falls, N.Y., said it would be difficult to get customers to think of
independents as places to buy books online.
“The mindset right now is, that’s Amazon or that’s BarnesandNoble.com,” he
said. “There’s a transformation that has to take place, and I think it will
happen in time.”
Other stores are experimenting with adding more nonbook
products, as Barnes & Noble has done with its in-store cafes and sales of
toys and games. John Hugo of HugoBookstores, which runs three bookstores in Massachusetts,
has begun including Spanish and knitting classes with his stores’ traditional
offerings. Mollie Loughlin, the owner of The Book Vine in the rural farming community of Cherokee,
Iowa, explained to one group of booksellers how she operates a business that
sells both books and bottles of fine wine.
At a workshop on Thursday, dozens of booksellers debated
the finer points of alternative business models, like the addition of a cafe.
Is it worth the trouble, one person asked? How do you figure out how much to
charge for scones and lattes? And even if nonbook business attracts attention,
how much profit will follow?
“At a certain point, I begin to feel like we don’t need
more P.R.,” said Roxanne Coady, the president and founder of R.J. Julia in Madison,
Conn. “We need sales.”
But Mary Beth Nebel, the owner of I Know You Like a Book, a
bookstore-with-wine-bar in Peoria Heights, Ill., said her wine business was a
marketing tool that brought people into the store. “It gives me a chance to
compete against the big stores that have cafes,” she said.
One challenge for booksellers, they said, was finding the
balance between selling their core product without overwhelming it with the presence
of coffee, baked goods, gifts and other merchandise.
“You don’t want people to walk in and think, ‘This is a
toy store with books,’ ” said Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books and Cafe
in Wichita, Kan. “But we have to be entertaining. You can get a customer to
come in for one thing, but then you have to seduce them with another — a book.”
Vivien Jennings, the founder and president of Rainy Day Books in
Fairway, Kan., said that booksellers had to realize that they were no longer
the “protected industry” that they used to be, when it was easier to stay in
“Now, whether we like it or not, bookselling is hard-core
retailing,” she said. “You have to be extra, extra good.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than at Borders, the once-thriving
chain that, during its days of rapid expansion, helped knock some independents
out of business.
Owners of smaller stores said they had mixed feelings
about the precarious health of Borders, which last month delayed payments to
publishers and has appeared dangerously close to bankruptcy.
“Short term, publishers are going to get squeezed,” said
Chris Morrow, owner and general manager of the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt. “Long term, it
might make publishers appreciate the bricks-and-mortar stores that are still
Mr. Rottenstreich of Red Fox Books said he worried that
Borders’ going out of business would wreak havoc on the industry.
Then again, he said with a small smile, “A lot of people,
in their heart of hearts, are happy when a Goliath falls.”