I am a huge fan of independent bookstores, something in no small part instilled by spending a lot of time in them as a child and later working in one as an adult. There is something very specific about a good independent bookstore that is hard to pin down in a simple formula that can be replicated anywhere, like chains attempt to do; the environment that welcomes all customers, the friendly staff, the excellent selection of books, the service customised to the area and the actual shoppers. A bad bookstore can be a terrible thing to see, but a good bookstore can be a beautiful one indeed, and their numbers are sadly shrinking.
Independents have been struggling since the rise not just of Amazon, but big chains with substantial capital to sink into expansion. They can afford to offer extremely steep discounts on books because of their negotiated deals with distributors, and many happily break pricing agreements, well aware that publishers may not find out and if they do, they’re unlikely to protest and lose a huge sales outlet. You can’t very well refuse to supply books to a store potential readers will expect to carry them, unless you want to create ire among your customers. With Amazon comes that added convenience, as well, of being able to access a variety of products for next day delivery, which is hard for a lot of consumers to pass up.
The numbers of independents are shrinking, even as all brick and mortar bookstores are having a hard time, as seen with the collapse of Borders earlier this year. The new culprit being fingered for this is ebooks, although of course obviously there are complex economic factors involved in why independent bookstores are having a rough time surviving. Why all businesses are having a very hard time, to be strictly honest. This is not a problem limited to booksellers, but to community businesses in general.
Ebooks aren’t helping, though, runs the argument. Amazon has very effectively and aggressively cornered the market with convenience and pricing. The Kindle and the Nook are brilliant tools for sales because they ensure a steady income stream and lock readers in, unless people are willing to modify them, which many readers are not. Devices like iPads and third party ereaders are less likely to funnel customers to specific distributors, but not immune. It’s so easy to click the in-program link, for example, to be routed to a large bookseller to buy more ebooks.
And many people are not aware that independent bookstores sell ebooks. Through an agreement with Google Books, it’s possible to buy ebooks through independents, although unfortunately the interface is less than ideal. It takes time to get accustomed to navigating, and it’s important to be aware that books have to be purchased through the bookstore’s website, not the Google Books site, as otherwise bookstores don’t get a cut of the transaction. This is information that is not readily conveyed to consumers.
Part of the problem, with that communication shortfall, I suspect, is a reluctance on the part of booksellers to get into the nitty-gritty of the transaction. Which is a pity, because customers would certainly support their independents if they knew it was an option, just as people who know that running debit transactions results in lower fees than credit ones may use their debit cards at small merchants if it doesn’t make a difference to them either way.
The selection of books is quite large, and Google Books also offers publisher freebies and promotionals when they come up, so people won’t miss out on free ebooks, and they can get the convenience of electronic reading while still buying through a local store. Pricing varies, depending on the book, but isn’t unreasonable. It’s like having cake, and eating it too, for people who prefer electronic formats but feel guilty about not patronising independent bookstores. For stores that aren’t part of the network yet, asking about it might be a good way to make staff aware that there’s interest so they can look into joining, and also makes it clear that customers want to stay loyal and offer support, they just need an opportunity to do so.
There’s something very particular about an independent bookstore that isn’t offered through a website, or through the impersonal corporate service at many chains, where employees may be penalised for individuality instead of being welcomed. It’s in the personalised book recommendations from people who get to know you, in the quirky assortment of books, in the ability to order anything for you, in the comfortable place to sit in the window that you won’t be driven out of, even if you haven’t bought anything. And no, not every independent offers that, but those that do are having a hard time surviving in this business climate, so I like to throw them money when I can.
The great thing about availability of ebooks through independents is that if you don’t have a local, or it’s not a very good bookstore, you can still support independents in other areas. If you visit a new community and find and independent you like, by gum, maybe you should think about buying your ebooks from them in the future, to let them know you appreciate a bookstore with good service and friendly employees and a nice selection within their walls. Positive reinforcement to keep great bookstores alive, with all the convenience of ebooks for your reading satisfaction. Everyone wins!
Because the good independent bookstore isn’t a thing that should be allowed to die without a fight.