It Still Isn't Easy, But Independent Bookstores Are Doing Better

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With another holiday shopping season on the horizon, one group of retailers is doing better than you might expect. Despite intense competition from Amazon and big box retailers, independent bookstores are enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

Robert Sindelar, managing partner at Third Place Books in Seattle, says for a couple of decades independent booksellers have been fighting an uphill battle, but now things are finally improving.

"People who value browsing books, who value physical books, who value engaging other people who read, seek places like this out," Sindelar says. "And more and more people are kind of coming out of the woodwork and finding us."

The buy-local movement has helped independent bookstores — and they got a boost after Borders declared bankruptcy and closed hundreds of retail outlets. Barnes & Noble has shuttered some stores as well.

There are other factors aiding independents, too. Technology has made it easier for them to manage inventories and payrolls cost-effectively. And publishers are now offering indie booksellers like Sindelar more attractive terms than they did in the past.

"Some publishers are offering longer terms to pay," Sindelar explains. "Some offer slightly better discounts, so our cost of goods is a little less." There are deals for returnability and cooperative money for advertising. "It does make a difference. Absolutely," Sindelar says.

Industry consultant Mike Shatzkin believes publishers will continue to offer concessions because publishers want retail bookstores to survive. They don't want Amazon to be the only game in town.

"I think publishers understand that if the bookstore network shrinks to nothing, they are in danger of shrinking to nothing as well," Shatzkin explains. "That's an existential fear that makes them very, very amenable to doing what they can to keep bookstores alive."

The American Booksellers Association counts among its members nearly 2,000 independent bookstores — about 20 percent more than in 2009 — and the number of books they're selling is up from a couple of years ago.

But make no mistake. Running an independent bookstore isn't easy.

Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, points out that Amazon and big box stores sometimes sell books for less than what they cost the local bookstore. Teicher suggests that Amazon sometimes even sells books for less than Amazon itself pays for them.

"What they're trying to do is develop a longtime relationship with consumers — that they'll sell them flat-screen televisions and diapers, and if they lose a few pennies on the sale of a book because they are helping build their customer base, that's their business model."

Independent booksellers can't begin to compete on price so they promote their expertise, the luxury of browsing, and their contributions to the community — including story times and other free events.

"This bookstore was kind of a stepping stone to kind of integrate myself into the local community," says Jessica Brown of Seattle's Mockingbird Books. "We had just moved here, and I have met more friends just by coming here."

Brown says she could spend less for books online or at a giant retailer, but she chooses to buy books at an independent bookstore.

"I think it's more of the principle — supporting the community and supporting the local booksellers who are trying to make it these days in really hard times," she says. "And I think that if we do that, we are helping one another. "

Independent booksellers can only hope that more and more readers feel the same way.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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