Hand Selling

The Few, the Proud, the Independent Bookstores

Contending first with the chains and more recently with Amazon, independent booksellers find survival tough but not impossible, and lately new stores are thriving.

02.27.15 10:15 AM ET

Kimberly Daniels doesn’t like to give her age. She recently became the co-owner and manager of a 61-year-old independent bookstore in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and she’s considerably younger than most of her staff and customers—an unpredictable mix of wealthy retirees, equestrians, and officers from nearby Fort Bragg. Young enough to measure her life experiences in shorter blocks than years, she’s part of a new generation of passionate, tech-savvy booksellers. “Fifty months ago, in November, I was living in New York, working in production for a daytime television show, and I never thought I would leave,” she says. Then she got a call from her cousin, who owns the local newspaper in the quaint small town of Southern Pines. The bookstore was for sale. Did she want to take a look? “I’m not athletic, but I got up at 5 in the morning that morning and I went for a run because I had this feeling that my life was going to change on that day, like really change,” she says. And it did. “We bought the bookshop and now I’m never leaving and I really love my life.” If her industry is doomed, Daniels apparently doesn’t know it, or doesn’t care.

Daniels was one of 500 independent booksellers who gathered recently in Asheville, North Carolina, for the American Booksellers Association’s 10th annual “Winter Institute”—an event that’s part conference, part boot camp, and part support group for these holdouts against Amazon. But in recent years, the mood has shifted, and this year’s event, at the century-old Grove Park Inn, felt positively festive. “We’ve got all this new blood, this new energy, this new enthusiasm,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the ABA, who has watched the event evolve from one at which he could name all the attendees to this sea of unfamiliar faces. A rousing keynote by John Green, author of the YA smash hit The Fault in our Stars and a hero to this crowd for his insistence on doing events solely at indies, summed up the philosophy that’s driving the resurgence: You can’t be all things to all customers. If you strive to be comprehensive, the “Everything Store” will beat you every time—Borders learned that the hard way. But even Amazon hasn’t quite learned that books aren’t just another commodity. “We’re not in the widgets business,” as Green puts it. “We’re in the story business.” Successful independent booksellers understand that difference, and are learning to embrace it, with all the passion and “unironic enthusiasm” they can summon.

Green’s message resonates particularly strongly with the new generation of booksellers, who put a great deal of stock in what’s authentic, local, and physical—even as they grasp more easily than their elders how social media can help build a real-life community. It’s become axiomatic that millennials prefer to live in walkable urban centers—the Pew Research Center recently estimated that two-thirds of the country’s college-educated 25-to-34-year-olds live in cities. The indie bookstore resurgence is inextricable from the gradual reclamation and revival of hollowed-out downtowns across America. “You combine localism with the democratization of the cost of technology, and then you take this incredible entrepreneurial passion that these folks have—you put all that together and you’ve got a recipe that works,” says Teicher.

The convention’s host city of Asheville is a case in point. Its recently rejuvenated downtown core now supports almost 100 restaurants and bars and five independent bookstores, counting the relative newcomer Battery Park Book Exchange—a combination used bookstore and champagne bar. Malaprop’s, the 33-year-old bookstore that anchors this literary community, has played a central role in the town’s resurgence. When it opened in June 1982, “Asheville was sort of a ghost town,” says Caroline Green, a 14-year veteran of the store, and Malaprop’s, with its basement café, became a social hub. Its founder, Emoke B’Racz, chose the location partly for its proximity to the thriving Pack Library, guessing that it was a sign of a community with a lot of active readers. B’Racz, who was born in Hungary, wanted her store to be a place “where poetry matters, where women’s words are as important as men’s, where one is surprised by excellence.” The success of Malaprop’s, and the revival of Asheville, eventually attracted the big chains; since Green started, two Barnes & Noble stores have opened in malls near downtown. “We freaked out,” she admits, but it soon became clear that the new stores had no impact on their business. At least one, she hears, is struggling. And oddly enough, Barnes & Noble has become a sort of ally—if a title is out of stock, she’ll call them, she says with a shrug. “At least they’re not Amazon.”

Other booksellers echo the counter-intuitive idea that the presence of rival stores can actually help an indie’s bottom line. Mark Haber, store manager at the 41-year-old Brazos bookstore in Houston, compares it to the way that the existence of more than one restaurant can help build a city block into a destination. “If you treat it like you’re all trying to do the same thing, share your love of books and literature with other people, and you’re not really competing with each other, I think everyone wins,” he says.

That’s the thinking behind events such as Independent Bookstore Day, planned for May 2 this year as a celebration that’s intended to attract customers into as many stores as possible. Andrea Vuleta, executive director of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association, describes last year’s California Bookstore Day—the inspiration for this year’s nationwide event—as combining a party atmosphere with a serious economic boost for stores. One store, she said, saw a sales bump of 1,024 percent that day.

It’s clear that in-store events, and the publicity they generate, are central to the success of a modern independent bookstore. Caroline Green of Malaprop’s recalls that when she started at the store, the events program was small, dominated by local authors, and it was difficult to convince big-city publishers that “Asheville was a worthy place to send their authors.” That has changed—partly, Green says, due to a talented events coordinator who can write convincing proposals, but also because experience has borne out the staff’s faith in their store. “We’ve proven that if we get Barbara Kingsolver, we will sell 1,500 copies of her book, in hardcover. So we’ve proven that we can make it worth the while for publishers to send these bigger names to Asheville.”

The support of publishers has played an important role in the indie resurgence, says Teicher. “Our friends in the publishing community have figured out that they need us as much as we need them.” Sixty-three publishers sponsored this year’s Winter Institute, bringing more than 80 authors to meet booksellers and introduce their biggest spring releases. Garth Risk Hallberg, whose debut novel City on Fire sold to Knopf for almost $2 million in 2013, began the promotional push for his October release in Asheville, alongside established authors like Erik Larson, Wendell Berry, and T.C. Boyle. For Erin Kottke and Marisa Atkinson, the publicity team at the independent Graywolf Press, Winter Institute was a chance to promote their upcoming titles in the hope of matching the success of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, a title they introduced at last year’s Winter Institute and that went on to become an unexpected bestseller.

But even as the future looks increasingly bright for indies, new challenges are starting to emerge, including one that unexpectedly puts the bookstores on the side of their corporate enemies—the increase in the mandatory minimum wage. Because publishers, not bookstores, set the price of their products, booksellers don’t have the same freedom as other retailers to hike prices to offset the increases.

At the ABA town hall meeting, booksellers from Seattle and San Francisco voiced their concern at how steeply and suddenly the increase was happening. The general manager of Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, Tracy Taylor, spoke of her shock at suddenly “being the bad guy in the room,” equated with the fast-food giants who are exploiting their workers. It was incumbent on booksellers, she believed, to make it clear that not all businesses are alike, and urged fellow booksellers to talk to local government as early, and as often, as possible. There was some wistful discussion of the kinds of contributions that the French government makes to support booksellers, to acknowledge that they’re cultural centers, not just widget sellers. But in the absence of such support, it’s up to booksellers to make that case on their own.

Social media, like a lively events program, offers a way to get customers into the store. Brazos in Houston runs more than 250 events a year and is active on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Mark Haber, who has worked at the store for just two years, has noticed that the store’s business has picked up even in that time. “When I started, on a Sunday afternoon you could do some stuff on your computer, maybe write an article for the newsletter,” he says. “Now, you’re going to write your article for the newsletter at home, because when you’re at the store you’re busy.” Even old media can be a source of support. For Kimberly Daniels, whose cousin and bookstore co-owner also publishes a local literary magazine, writing book reviews and advertising in that space “helps us get the word out,” to her varied and ever-changing customer base. “It’s important to be in front of our customers so they can remember that they love us!”

However, keeping up with the content demands of social or print media can be a challenge for small stores with only a handful of staff. LitHub, a new venture backed by Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove Atlantic, aims to do its part in alleviating that burden by acting as a central destination for literary content online. As it prepares to launch on April 8, LitHub is pitching itself to independent bookstore owners as a place where the broad online literary community can gather, in the hope of then driving those readers offline, to brick-and-mortar stores (the site’s editor, Jonny Diamond, is married to a bookseller, who runs Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, New York). LitHub is planning to employ regional reporters who will be able to write about bookstore events, bringing them to a wider audience, as well as running regular features promoting independent bookstores as destinations for bookish travelers.

But tourism—with its implications of disengaged, thoughtless consumption—can be a dangerous model for bookstores. Anne DeVault, who owns and runs her store, Over the Moon, in tourist-heavy Crozet, Virginia, is blunt about her situation: “We’re hanging on by our fingernails,” she says. She’s equally blunt about the cause: Amazon. The practice of “showrooming” is the downside of making your store an appealing destination—visitors happily stop by for recommendations and browsing, get a bookseller’s thoughtful recommendation, and then go buy the book at a discount online.

For Kimberly Daniels, the answer is education—making sure people understand that a store’s survival depends on them. “Customers want bookstores to be there. I have customers who are e-readers and I make a point to say: I want you to read however you find pleasurable, but I want you to remember us when it’s time for the cookbook, the baby gift, the Christmas book, the autographed copy.”