The imperiled indie bookstore business model

From The New Republic, an article on the fall, sort-of-rise, and subsequent fall of the independent bookseller in America:

Is This the End of the Indie Bookstore?

Needless to say, independent bookstores have been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic and the government-mandated shutdown of the national economy. Few state bureaucrats have deemed bookstores as “essential”. Most have therefore been shut down for about two months at the time of this writing.

As the New Republic article explains, independent bookstores were battered by the rise of B&N and Borders superstores in the 1990s. This was before the rise of Amazon and ebooks..not to mention COVID-19.

After several decades of decline, indie bookstores bounced back somewhat between 2009 and 2019.

“They fostered a sense of community between business and consumer; their wares were curated specifically for their clientele; and they were places where people could physically convene. These were not just stores selling widgets, they were local hubs.”

So what do I think about the future of the independent bookstore?

Well, first of all, I can definitely see  where indie booksellers that specialize in particular niches could continue to flourish.

For example, during the 1990s, when I was studying the Japanese language like mad, I patronized a Japanese bookstore in Columbus, Ohio. I was also a frequent mail order customer of the Sasuga Japanese Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which closed in 2010.

Foreign language books are a niche that typically get lost in big bookstores; and foreign language instructional titles are difficult to search for on Amazon. People who don’t study foreign languages typically don’t understand these publications. They don’t know how to categorize or merchandise them. I benefitted immensely from specialized retail sources for such materials, staffed by people who could anticipate what I was looking for. 

And while foreign language learning publications are my example, this isn’t the only possible one. I can also see a dedicated bookstore for topics like science and technology, computers, and arts and crafts. Anything that a particular group of people geeks out on, and which the non-geeks don’t tend to understand.

***

But what about general nonfiction, and the latest James Patterson/John Grisham/Stephen King bestsellers?

To be blunt, I don’t really see a viable indie business model moving forward for general bookselling. It’s simply become too easy to order books online.

Moreover, even Barnes & Noble and Borders (which were pretty good bookstores, all in all) couldn’t compete with Amazon in the space of general book retailing. Why would a mom-and-pop bookstore with a tenth the inventory be able to compete where they failed?

And as for that notion of indie bookstores being gathering places or “local hubs” (mentioned in the above-linked article): That might be a factor in a university town, or in a hipster neighborhood of Austin or Seattle. But in the vast suburban and rural sprawl of flyover America, that is much less significant.

***

I’m an entrepreneur myself, so I love the idea of the scrappy, independent bookstore. But the economic realities of the Internet age favor disintermediation. And as quaint as that whole “community hub” thing sounds in an online article, in the real world, few readers are focused on the book-buying experience. They’re focused on the reading experience.

(I’ll remind the reader: B&N and Borders, with their vast, luxurious, brick-and-mortar stores, provided very pleasant shopping experiences. That didn’t enable them to compete with Amazon, though, in the long run.)

Any independent booksellers that survive beyond 2020 will have to offer something different, or something specialized. Simply being a smaller version of Borders (or the book section at Walmart/Costco) won’t be enough. But that wasn’t enough even ten years ago.