The “Novel” Return of the Independent Bookstore
In a shocking twist of economic events, the resurrection of the independent bookshop from the dead has become far more prevalent. The online shopping industry, coupled with the evolution of electronics and societies’ growing dependency on them, created a war zone out of the field of book-selling business. After all, Amazon first began in 1995 as an online bookseller. It launched a brand-new business model, the sale of an enormous variety of books online, and eventually became so grossly popular that it grew into the all-encompassing online shopping community we know today. The small-town bookshop, that has been romanticized by bibliophiles since time immemorial, has reemerged from its almost-extinction by following clever marketing techniques and the wave of indie pop-culture that has been sweeping the nation. Social media has also served to benefit independent bookstores, as it allows consumers to interact with and get a feel of the shop and what it has to offer before venturing out. “Bookstagram” and “Booktok” (two terms to describe the literary subsections of social media, coined by the bibliophile communities of Instagram and TikTok, respectively), are just two examples of this growing craze. These accounts dedicate themselves to showcasing the types of genres and titles, among other products, that their shops have to offer. Typically, the most popular type of media produced by said accounts to gain the most traction and attention on social media are posts that follow current trends in pop-culture.
One major factor that serves detrimental to the independent bookstore is pricing. Books and products sold at these small businesses are more than likely to priced higher than those sold from online sellers, as independent shops have more overhead and are lacking in endless amounts of funding to keep themselves afloat. In many instances, price increases are necessary in these establishments to ensure that not only does the business make the money they put out on the product, but to also gain profit from the sale. This, unfortunately, not only dissuades customers and makes them less likely to purchase from the establishment, but also leads them right into the ready and waiting arms of their online competitors, who offer the same literary products at lower prices. A common occurrence in these business comes when a customer enters, selects a title, and, upon seeing the price, takes a picture on their phone for the purpose of looking for it cheaper from an online seller.
Yet another factor serving to the detriment of independent bookshops is lack of variety. In the case of the online bookselling-giant Amazon, they are essentially are virtual Library of Alexandria. Their literary stock covers titles ranging from academic texts to independently published works. Additionally, their stock is increased by E-books and audio editions, which can easily be purchased downloaded onto any device. In this digital age, online bookshops have found how to market their infinite variety to every type of reader. Independent bookstores suffer the consequences of this, as it is nearly impossible for them to keep up with the near-infinite stock of online sellers and near-infinite amount of published works. Many independent bookstores specialize in one subject, making it easier to obtain titles and create a decent amount of stock, but harder to obtain clients, as consumers in such stores must be interested in the specific niche that the store focuses on.
The third and arguably most important and detrimental factor that online services can provide is that of convenience. It was once argued that online booksellers were hindered by the fact that it took several days to ship out literary products that independent bookstores could provide immediately to customers
(Chu, 2012). Much to the independent bookstore’s dismay, services such as Amazon Prime and Same-Day Shipping serve to give online booksellers a leg-up on their smaller competition. Shipping services like these, combined with the fact that consumers can purchase products from their devices from the comfort of their homes, has been incredibly effective. During more recent circumstances, such as the pandemic, online booksellers were able to continue business as usual, and further thrive by gaining additional customers who they may have lost to independent booksellers.
In order to create an independent bookshop that is able to thrive in a world that is dominated by online markets, business owners must sell an experience to their clientele that their online competitors cannot. Raffaeli in his examination, ‘Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores’, refers to this as ‘The Three C’s’. These ‘Three C’s’ (community, curation, and convening), have contributed greatly to the reemergence of the independent bookstore. In a 2015 conference, ABA CEO Oren Teicher opened his address with the statement, “It is a great time for Indie bookstores. Bigger is not always better. We’ve shown its possible to change and adapt. We’ve redefined who we are”. By establishing themselves as a place to gather and a small, community-based business, Indie bookshops have begun to reinvent themselves as pillars of small-town economies. In many past instances, the location of these shops (which includes the town and area of said town) have been gathered as ample evidence of why these types of small businesses fail. Through the growing trend of ‘championing localism’ and supporting and promoting the core values of consumers in their areas, independent bookstores have been able to gain back customers that would have been otherwise lost to their competitors. In addition to selling unique experiences, many booksellers engage in the art of ‘hand selling’, which is an experience that it confined to in-person bookselling. ‘Hand-selling’ occurs when a bookseller, who in considered an expert in the stock and topics of their store, ask a customer a certain amount of questions in order to obtain a profile on their preferred genre or topic. Once they’ve gathered enough information, the bookseller selects a number of books that fit the specific profile and preferences of the customer. For booksellers to serve as ‘matchmakers’ between customers and books, they must be in possible of intimate knowledge of their stock as well as its contents.
The death of the independent bookstore can be attributed to one, well-known factor: Amazon. Since its beginning in 1995 as an online bookseller, it launched a brand-new business model that eventually made it grow into the all-encompassing shopping giant that it is today. As Indie bookstores battle to re-emerge from the annals of time, one must be able to acknowledge how and why they faced extinction in the first place. Such reasons as Amazon’s efficiency, variety, and pricing, as well as marketing tactics and advertising can be attributed to its gross victory over the independent bookseller.
Amazon has been able to succeed and triumph over independent bookstores for various reasons. The first and most popular of these: Convenience. Amazon is open 24-hours, 365 days a years, and can essentially be accessed anywhere there is internet connection. The independent bookstore runs on schedules and times set by its owners (who may close early, on holidays, weekends, Mondays, etc), and requires customers to travel to their set location in order to purchase their product. Though these stores offer the instant gratification Amazon doesn’t, Amazon makes up for it in an equally important field: Pricing. Amazon is able to offer sales and cheaper prices for literature that small bookstores are financially unable to match. A personal study conducted at ‘Inkwood Books’ in Haddonfield, New Jersey proved this point. A copy of the book ‘Queens of the Abyss: Lost Stories from the Women of the Weird” compiled by Mike Ashley was priced at a dismal $24. While Inkwood provides a cozy, quiet atmosphere , as well as involvement with the local school districts and local authors, a quick journey to Amazon shows the book priced at $14.14 (with $5.99). Amazon even offers additional options from other sellers and parties, with some used copies being priced at $12.30, and some new copies priced at $11.76. Even with shipping costs, Amazon still proves the wiser seller to purchase from if one doesn’t want to spend a fortune on mere paperbacks.
Another facet of Amazon that proves to be detrimental to the small bookstore business is E-books. Purchasable on Kindle through Amazon, many of these pieces are self-published, meaning that the variety of books offered by Amazon is much vaster than any brick and mortar establishment’s inventory. An article from News24 boasts the claim the E-book sales have more than doubled in the past three years alone, with Amazon’s involvement and the pandemic most likely offering a fair explanation. E-books offer an additional win for Amazon through their convenience. They are able to be downloaded onto any device or e-reader almost instantly after purchase, giving the instant gratification of an independent bookshop over the internet. In this digital age, online bookshops have found how to market their infinite variety to every type of reader. Independent bookstores suffer the consequences of this, as it is nearly impossible for them to keep up with the near-infinite stock of online sellers and near-infinite amount of published works. Many independent bookstores specialize in one subject, making it easier to obtain titles and create a decent amount of stock, but harder to obtain clients, as consumers in such stores must be interested in the specific niche that the store focuses on.
As the independent bookshop begins its gradual return into the world of retail, Amazon still remains to be the scapegoat for the industry’s gradual collapse. That, however, is an incredibly oversimplified assessment of an issue that stems not only in the economic world, but in the social and psychological sphere as well. The rise of social media giants and their subsequent impact on the attention span, coupled with the pandemic and the economic crisis that followed it, can be factored in as a few alternate reasons for the collapse of the small book business.
In the case of the downfall of small book businesses, one needs to look no further than social media. It comes as no surprise that as social media began to grow, the number of readers began to shrink. As new social media apps began to surface, such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, etc, the world began to turn away from pages and towards screens. Research conducted amongst senior high school students at San Diego State University showed that 60% of seniors reported reading as a hobby in the 1970s. The same study was conducted again in 2016, and the results showed that only 16% of students reported doing so. Overall, it was estimated that only 1 in 3 students in the U.S engage in leisurely reading. Online ‘e-readers’ (those who indulge in online articles that do not qualify as e-books) can be found on hundreds of sites and apps that boast engaging, short-content that can be accessed either on mobile devices or computers (some of these sites include Reddit, The Washington Post, and other sites rife with content). A study conducted by the Wall Street Journal suggests that part of the reason engagement in attention-consuming activities like reading has gone down is due to society’s need for instant gratification.
As of 2021, 34% of American small businesses are still closed as a result of COVID. With approximately 99.9% of small businesses in America identifying as small businesses, and occupying 47.3% of the country’s private workforce, the loss of these businesses have threatened not only the nation’s economy, but the financial stability of many American citizens. Small bookstores make up only a small amount of businesses effected by the pandemic and its subsequent lockdown, and while Indie bookstores have begun to utilize social media in order to boost engagement and revenue, the effect of social media on the average user’s attention span has been drastic. As these stores try to boost their engagement, they can’t guarantee that their viewers will ever engage with them beyond one simple like over the internet.
Natanson, Hannah (2018) “Yes, teens are texting and using social media instead of reading books, researchers say”, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2018/08/20/for-american-teens-texting-and-social-media-are-replacing-books/
Ghosh, Iman (2021) “34% of America’s small businesses are still closed due to COVID-19. Here’s why it matters”, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/05/america-united-states-covid-small-businesses-economics/
O’Brien, Reese (2022) “Indie Bookstores’ COVID Recovery: Leveraging TikTok and BookShop.org”, https://pulitzercenter.org/stories/indie-bookstores-covid-recovery-leveraging-tiktok-and-bookshoporg
Chu, CP., Guo, WC. & Lai, FC. On the competition between an online bookstore and a physical bookstore. Netnomics 13, 141–154 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11066-012-9068-y
Raffaeli, R.L, Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores, Harvard School of Business, (January, 2020) https://www.hbs.edu/ris/Publication%20Files/20-068_c19963e7-506c-479a-beb4-bb339cd293ee.pdf
News24, “E-books Hurt Traditional Bookstores”, News24, (2011). https://www.news24.com/news24/e-books-hurt-traditional-bookstores-20110208
What this needs is a concluding paragraph that sums up all your observations, P&P. You need to acknowledge briefly that while many factors threatened and continue to threaten independent local booksellers, Amazon is still the primary competitor for THE FEW REMAINING BUYERS OF PHYSICAL BOOKS. These are the same people, you can claim, who are probably good targets for a local-friendly business that caters to an in-person, community-inclusive VENUE that welcomes browsing, holds events, nurtures local authors, is run by book experts who know their stock, . . . etc. Such people might still browse the shelves and buy cheaper off of Amazon, but they’re the only hope for a store that wants to “hand-sell” books. Let me know when you’ve done this if you want a regrade.
Graded SAT APR 29