Independent bookstores write a new chapter

Isaac Young doesn’t like what he sees when enters a large company bookstore such as Barnes & Noble. To him, it has no personality or character. Escalators lead customers to and from massive book sections. Large shelves stuffed with mass market books are everywhere. For Young, a bookstore’s atmosphere is important, but large companies and online shops are uninviting. He prefers independent bookstores.

“For me, it’s also the atmosphere,” Young said. “It’s always different. It’s nicer. It’s not a warehouse, it’s not… medical.”

In recent years, independent bookstores have been making a comeback. Despite Amazon acting as a one-stop shop and Barnes & Noble offering thousands of books at each location, independent bookstores are fighting back. After a large decline in the number of bookstores, it’s easy to wonder how a resurgence has been possible.

According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA) in a Harvard Business School article, the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. fell 43 percent between 1995 and 2000. Then the trend changed. Between 2009 and 2015, the ABA reported a 35-percent growth in the number of independent booksellers from 1,651 to 2,227.

Around this time, e-book sales began to shift. According to the Association of American Publishers, from January to November 2016 versus the same period in 2015, trade e-book sales were down 16.4 percent. People are turning back to printed books.

The number of bookstores and e-book sales are not the only statistics on the move. According to a Forbes article about book sales, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that bookstore sales are up 6.1 percent since January 2016. These are surprising statistics considering the impact of Amazon’s popularity. Chris Vognar has a unique perspective on this issue as culture critic for The Dallas Morning News.

“Amazon is expedient and pretty cheap and fast,” Vognar said. “It is not offering you that kind of personal experience.”

Independent bookstores offer this experience in many different ways. The books are curated to fit the local interests which creates a sense of community and an atmosphere filled with like-minded people.

“At an independent bookstore, you are curating just as much as someone setting up a museum exhibit is,” Vognar said.

An independent bookstore’s atmosphere is a major factor that draws in customers. For many, a big company bookstore can’t provide the same experience.

Young chooses The Wild Detectives, an independent bookstore in Dallas, for this reason. He sat at a table in the middle of the little shop with his laptop while enjoying a coffee that he purchased from the bar. Music and conversation blended in the background as he shared his perspective.

“I think people like to talk about books,” Young said. “I can’t talk about a book with Amazon; I can read reviews of books.”

Discussing books with other like-minded people and being able to socialize in such a relaxed setting is another major reason why people feel there is a resurgence. Wild Detectives employee Victor Rimach Vera shares this view.

“I think people are also looking for places to socialize and once you have a place like this where pretty much there’s a lot of regulars, you do create a sense of community,” Vera said.

Community and supporting local is a big emphasis in independent bookstores. It can be difficult for smaller, local authors to make money and be recognized, so these bookstores give them a platform to showcase their talent. Independent bookstore frequenter Matt Webb thinks this may be a factor for their growing popularity in recent years.

“Personally, I would probably attribute it to just a resurgence of the idea of independence in general,” Webb said. “Enjoying the idea that some random person like the talent and the abilities of people who aren’t necessarily co-signed by large companies, people like that. People want that to come back.”

For many customers, it’s all about showing support to local authors by choosing independent bookstores over a Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

“I prefer supporting local given the opportunity and I think that the selection is usually much more interesting and much more eclectic and much more focused on local authors and I like being able to support them,” Young said.

Large bookstore companies and online shops will always play a big role in the consumption of books. However, the little things matter to people who shop at independent bookstores. They aren’t concerned about a cheaper price, wider selection or one-click purchase. Independent bookstore customers care about a sense of community and atmosphere. People like Young shop at these stores not to find the most talked about book on the market, but new ones that they have never heard of before, books that the independent bookstores have curated to fit the local atmosphere.

“I think that they tend to know their community better and tend to reflect better what the community’s interests are,” Young said.

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