Independent Bookstores are Back! (Were They Gone?)

Amazon, the behemouth of online booksellers, is regarded as Voldemort, Am*zon, or simply The Devil by many indies — it’s the firm that has tried to take down independent bookstores by slashing prices, adding an obscene number of products to inventory, and wooing potential customers with a variety of tactics. Free shipping. Discounts negotiated at a rate indies can’t compete with because they don’t buy on that level (a case of books might be necessary for a big release, but thousands of cases?). Yet, despite Amazon’s best efforts to crush the competition, indies are alive, and thriving. This news surprises everyone but indies.

The ones that are suffering the most are big book chains. Amazon and indies are able to uneasily coexist because they’re offering fundamentally different services — if you think buying books is just about buying books, you have another think coming, and I’ll get into that in more detail in a moment. Meanwhile, the chains like Barnes and Noble are struggling to counterbalance that, because they can’t hope to compete with Amazon, nor can they hope to offer what indies do.

I still make a point of keeping Catsby in kibble, making me part of a family of buyers that preferentially goes indie, but there are lots of people who vary their buying choices without harming indies. Others buy entirely from Amazon, and while they eat into the indie bottom line, they’re hardly destroying it — because indies offer services Amazon doesn’t. People who don’t want those services certainly aren’t obliged to use them (although I do think it’s tacky when customers go to an independent bookstore, get personalised service, and then take book recommendations to Amazon).

Here’s what Amazon offers: Indisputably cheap books, and a tremendous range of books, paired with very easy access to out-of-print and hard to find books. If you know what you want and you just want to order a book and be done with it, Amazon is definitely an option. Thanks to shipping services like Prime, you can set up two or even one-day shipping to get your book wicked fast — and you get access to benefits like free online streaming video along with, of course, the ability to order everything you could possibly imagine from Amazon. (Except, possibly, a pony.)

Here’s what chain stores offer: A usually mediocre selection of books with inventory determined not on a store-by-store basis, but by mandates from corporate headquarters, which means that many chains do not actually serve their audience. Like Amazon, they have heavily-discounted books thanks to the fact that they buy in bulk and can negotiate significant discounts with publishers. They also typically offer some book-related odds and ends, maybe some music, possibly a store cafe, sometimes store readings and other events. They can’t compete with Amazon…and they can’t offer what indies do.

Here’s what indies offer: An inventory customised to the locale and audience, which may vary in size and selection; it’s usually smaller in terms of sheer volume than a chain store because of smaller store size, but it’s made up for with a very sharp buyer who is attuned to the needs and wants of the population. Thus, a buyer in a place like Berkeley, for example, is going to go light on conservative titles and load the deck heavily with more progressive reading and literary fiction — while a buyer in a smaller, more conservative town might focus on conservative books and a different selection of fiction. They typically also offer out of print book searches and literary ephemera — book-themed t-shirts, bookmarks, literary prints, etc.

Indies, from the start, pick and choose books they think their customers will like, based on locale, experience, and past sales. When a customer walks in the door, she’s free to simply browse, exploring the offerings and seeing if anything interests her. She can approach the staff to ask if they have a specific book in stock, or, more critically, for recommendations. The staff know the stock quite intimately, and while they haven’t read every book, they have broad knowledge, especially because they pool resources — maybe a staffer hasn’t read Gone Girl, but others have.

She knows whether the book is a good fit for a given customer, and she also knows which books someone might like if she enjoyed Gone Girl. Staffers can make eerily accurate and amazing recommendations to ensure that customers take away books that they would never have thought of, and turn out loving. Some actually build up loyal followings — when I worked as an indie bookseller, one customer was notorious for being ‘difficult,’ but she absolutely loved me and would essentially buy anything I told her to buy because she trusted my recommendations, since I knew her tastes and those of her family very, very well.

That’s a service that Amazon can’t provide, no matter how good its algorithms are. It’s a service chains can’t offer, because their inventory is constricted and they don’t know their customers well. That’s because indies build up a community and culture around their stores. They’re not just a place to buy books, but a place to meet people, play, and enjoy their communities — which means that customers build up loyalties. Indies hold author events. They hold game nights and story time and other events to draw in customers, reach out to the community, and create ties.

That’s why indies aren’t just surviving in an Amazon age, but actively doing well: Because they have found a way to offer niche services that their competitors simply can’t. Indies may never sell on the same level that Amazon does and they certainly won’t be going into IPOs anytime soon, but that doesn’t make them failures by any reasonable business metric.

Long live indies.