08 October 2006

indie bookstores strike back?

An interesting article over at Wired argues independent bookstores are surviving--and possibly thriving--by creating the kinds of reader-centered spaces that the internet and chain stores can't offer:

...even as 200 to 300 independent bookstores close a year, the number of independent book stores opening is creeping up.

"For a long time, from 1992 to 2002, you literally could count on two hands the number of openings," said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. "In the last three years there are 60, 70, 80 stores opening" each year, he said.

That's welcome news for an association that's watched its membership plummet from 4,000 to about 1,800 since the early 1990s.

"There are a lot of ways to make money in the business," said [Adam] Brent, whose father, Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent, closed the city's most famous bookstore after a half century in 1996.

Gary Kleiman, who owns BookBeat in the northern California community of Fairfax, decided the way to do it was to get rid of the clutter and make his store a gathering place.

"We had 10,000 or 13,000 books in the store," said Kleiman. "Now we have maybe 1,500." Last fall, Kleiman gave all but a handful of his used books to charity. Then he tore down shelves and in their place put tables and chairs and a small stage for live performances. He started offering free wireless internet access. And to help convince people to take advantage of it all he got a beer and wine license.

As for the books, most of the ones left are new and they're confined to the perimeter walls. While he's selling about the same number of books as he used to, new books are selling better. And his store has a lot more customers -- eating, drinking and listening to music -- than he did before. About 60 percent of the store's profits come from the cafe.

Kleiman's drastic move after six years of business is in large part the result two things he came to understand about the internet.

The first was that there were just too many used books online and they were just too cheap -- far cheaper than he could afford to sell them.

The second was that for all the talk about the speed of ordering books online, he could be faster. "I can order today and they will be here tomorrow," he said -- one reason customers choose him instead of the internet.

Some bookstores have survived by giving their customers what they say chain stores often do not: Employees who know what they're talking about.

"You can discuss books with us. We are all readers," said Arlene Lynes, who opened Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, Illinois, in 2005. "To me, that's what's bringing people back."

Powells City of Books here in Portland is one of the best reader-centered spaces in the world, and also easily one of the best places to find and buy books online. Is this merely an anomaly? What *is* the reality (and thus the future) of indie bookstores anyhoo?

1 comment:

blonde said...

excellent post, my man.

indie bookstores--i'd say contrary to the propaganda that they are a dying breed, they are an insurgent breed, and the so-called crisis is merely a stage in their mode of production.

call me karl.