Indie Bookstores. So What?

“The smallest bookstore still contains more ideas of worth than have been presented in the entire history of television.”

–Andrew Ross

Opening a bookstore one day has been at the top of my Dream Job /  Do What You Love short-list for years, and despite it sometimes seeming about as practical as wanting to become a blacksmith or full-time poet, I haven’t given up hope.


I’m a firm believer that independent bookstores are not only critical to the viability of the publishing industry, but also to the cultural and economic fabric of local communities. I’m not anti-Barnes & Noble or Amazon (though I DO hate Wal-Mart on general principle) because I think they serve a more general audience than the independent bookseller can or should attempt to. Indies are Peter Luger’s to B&N’s 7/11, if you will — quality over quantity; curation over commodity.

BUT, I think making that the central pitch of why independent bookstores are important is lame, whiny and stinks of entitlement.

No indie bookseller is going to be able to compete with Amazon or Barnes & Noble on price, selection or ecommerce—IndieBound is well-intentioned but doesn’t even come close to being enough—but they are much better-suited for engaging with their customers, offline and on, than either behemoth.

In preparing for next week’s webinar, Indie Booksellers and the Digital Transition: Opportunity Knocks?, I’ve thought about the bookstores I like, and have been looking for good examples of any that are leveraging the Internet to complement their physical presence, and beyond some solid blogs, haven’t found much of note.

While a blog is a nice start, most tend to only represent the bookseller itself, not its customers nor its local community. And as Vroman’s discovered last week, as popular as Twitter is in the publishing industry, it probably isn’t the ideal forum to reach a local audience of book buyers.

Despite the lip service paid to the importance of independent bookstores to local communities,  though, I’ve yet to find any real sense of community on any bookseller’s site. Most are extremely self-centered, either focusing solely on ecommerce; following the personal branding model of social MEdia gurus; or worse, the sad equivalent of a Yellow Pages listing.

When it’s so much easier to go online to and shop, read and write reviews, and even to browse—what can the independent bookseller possibly offer to get me to spend my time and money on their websites and in their stores?

40 thoughts on “Indie Bookstores. So What?

  1. Provocative post — which ignores utterly the problem of e-fairness, Amazon's aggressive policy of tax evasion in states where they have a physical presence (distribution centers), Amazon's decade-long head start on IndieBound, and the fact that hating Walmart while embracing Amazon should make one's head ring with cognitive dissonance instead of self-righteousness.

  2. Excellent point, Brandon. As I noted on Twitter, the Wal-Mart/Amazon disconnect is part hypocrisy, part lack of fully understanding the big picture on the tax issues and the effect on my community. I'm looking forward to your links, because from an industry perspective, I think it's a subject that gets way too little attention, but I have my suspicions as to why.

    That said, in the context of why indie bookstores matter, e-fairness isn't a terribly compelling pitch on its own because it's difficult to frame for the consumer's perspective.

    While I can literally see the tangible effects Wal-Mart and other big box retailers have on a local community, Amazon's is much less tangible, partly because most indie booksellers don't seem to be as critical as we'd like to believe they are.

    At the end of the day, looking at the local booksellers in MY area, why should I care about them? What do they add to my community, and what will I miss when they're gone? Why are they any more important than the local bodega, dry cleaners or diner?

    NOTE: These are questions I'm asking because I want to be able to answer them, not because I necessarily agree with their implications.

  3. As a guy who ran an indie bookstore for almost two years, I CAN say that indies can definitely beat the majors on price (though not selection). We dealt primarily in remainders and overstock, and probably offered the best book deals in NYC. Classic literature never sold for over $10 (off the top of my head, brand new nice editions of Atlas Shrugged… See More went for $8, Anna Karenina for $4, most smaller Penguin books went for $1.50 or $2, tax included). Rizzoli art books that'd retail for $85 at Barnes & Nobles, or $77.19 with Amazon's discount, we still found carried for $20. Hardback Marvel and DC TPBs which retail at $49.95 or $99.95 at Midtown or online, we carried at half-price. And to this day I'm still fetching copies of some Sabuda art books for friends that sell at Moma for $45, which we carry for $12.

    Not that it's easy — the owner basically spends his life traveling around the US and Europe buying up remainders and overstock in bulk, selling in quantity to Strand in the city and a dozen other bookstores internationally, which lets us skim off copies for our storefront and sell them to the public for next to nothing. That's what the majors don't have — an old school hippie in a cowboy hat dedicated to nothing but hitting up warehouses and working out face to face deals with regular clients for large palates of books on the cheap. Not that Barnes & Noble couldn't send an army of people out to do the same thing, but in the name of corporate efficiency, I'm guessing they'd rather just pay the extra money (or have the customer pay the extra money) to work out quick deals with retail distributors on the phone than dedicating the time and effort to hunting down the best books at the lowest possible cost to sell below retail prices.

    Anyway, just my thoughts! And god do I miss that job… it was my happy place.

  4. A local book store has been doing quite well — and it's not a chain. The store holds events on a regular basis, has a kitchen for demonstrations and carries ABA IndieNext selections as well as staff favorites. It's a huge store — not a little one that you expect of an indie-type store — still, it's doing something different and it's surviving.

    It has a great lineup. My husband went there for a presentation about college financing (nothing to do with books), and of course, he couldn't help but look at books after the presentation. Sarah Palin was there… Cake Wrecks was there. I am stay far away from there as much as possible as I don't think my pocketbook can handle a trip there.

  5. That's an awesome story, Dylan, thanks for opening up a little peek of the guts of the business from your perspective.

    I'm with Guy on the principle that we tend to straddle the e v. p argument, but GOD I wish I could open up a bookstore. I'd serve food, too, and do readings, some live performances, showcase local artists, and then butterflies would fall from the sky carrying million-dollar-bills and bunnies and unicorns would inhabit the White House.

    My issue with indie bookstores is exactly what makes so many of them unique and amazing: ATTITUDE. It's something I guess you don't get at Walmart. And it most certainly doesn't imply that all indie bookstores have attitude. But take Strand for example, not helpful, mostly dicks. Certain other indie bookstores are wonderful and run by beautiful souls willing to help anyone. But the whole eccentric thing can get tired. After all, they're in customer service and they sometimes tend to forget that.

    When I go to a bodega, I don't expect help, customer service. But for some weird reason, when I go to a bookstore I expect conversation, assistance, recommendations. Obviously my expectations are off-kilter.


  6. I think Meryl points out to me the difference. I don't know that Joseph Beth counts as a true Indie or a small chain, but they are by far and large much better than B&N for book signings and events. As far as their website, I do think that could be better, but they have an excellent selection and I love their (Cincinnati) layout. I'm no parent, but my guess is that their biggest success is with kids and those events.

    All of the best indie bookstores seem to know that focusing on events is the way to bring people in store. I'm curious, too, as to where you think booksellers like Powell's fits in to this?

  7. Great insight, Dylan. I'd argue that “old school hippie in a cowboy hat” is a metaphor for curation, and it can take various forms, including the angle you illustrate. The key is finding the right niche that's not filled by the competition, and serving it well.

  8. Everything my dream bookstore would have is hinted at in that picture above, foreground and background. 🙂

    As for expectations, the helpful bookseller is a cherished stereotype that, in my experience, is the exception, not the rule; more White House unicorns than reality.

  9. Regular events and smart merchandising are two critical areas for bookstores, corporate or indie — and there's plenty of both who don't do either very well — but how do they translate that online? And what are they doing to stay top-of-mind with customers when they're not in the store? Care to share their URL?

  10. They have a Twitter account (@legacy_books) and Facebook page — which they need to post on their web site to make the most of it. Legacy Books: — site is Flash-based unfortunately. Imagine with all these extras and modifying their web site to be more social media friendly… what they could do.

  11. I like Joseph Beth's Cincinnati site, from an ecommerce perspective, and there's a nice bit of local community flavor in their Gives Back rewards program, though not linking to each partner is weird. Also, where's the links to local authors, libraries and book review sites?

    They allow customers to review books, which is great, but it's a missed opportunity that their staff picks don't have any staff reviews, nor any indicator on the individual product pages that they're staff picks nor who picked it.

    Overall, the site is functional, but has ZERO personality.

  12. Exactly! Darn shame… considering they do everything else right. They're also missing out on SEO — can't even copy/paste text that I would have quoted with attribution.

  13. The Tattered Cover (@tatteredcover), McNallyJackson (@mcnallyjackson), and Vromans (@vromans) all seem to be maximizing the opportunities for independent shops via Twitter, at least. TC's website is painful, but that's not where they're engaging most with customers, I'd argue; the first line for most shops should be is Twitter, blog (ok, part of the website), and Facebook–or whichever of these is the best fit and generates the most engagement from their communities.

  14. Clearly you've never visited the Politics and Prose (Washington DC) website ( From nearly daily author events to nightly book clubs, PP is very community focused in addition to being one of the best bookstores in the country.

  15. IF your audience is on Twitter (and that's a big IF, depending on your location), then it's definitely a good place for booksellers to be, but it is by no means a substitute for a strong website.

  16. Politics and Prose is doing a lot of things right on their site, though their home page layout and navigation makes some of it difficult to find. Not enabling members/customers to review individual books is a missed opportunity, too.

    Still, one of the better bookseller sites I've seen that balances ecommerce with community, and one of the first I've seen that's also selling ebooks. Thanks for pointing it out!

  17. A substitute, no. But Twitter can serve locally just fine. Folks use it here to report and monitor neighborhood crime, for example. A bookseller who reported that “the special-order copy of The Whale just came in” or “we've sold out of Finch” (as perhaps weak examples) isn't just informing individual customers, but is curating at the same time, showing off what's popular and order-worthy, to an extent.

    We have a local record store that uses its Twitter feed to characterize itself and report on in-store events, and it does a good job of reminding us that the store is there and why we should be glad to have it.

    Also, I guess I'd argue that if a store is going to be a physical space (since that's a choice), it should take advantage of that space to be somewhere you want to be in, either as a third place (which B&N, etc., pursue) or as an event space. But events worth Twittering don't have to be big — they can be great conversations, new pots of hot cider, or anything else that makes you wish you were a regular. Maybe.

  18. Good examples, Will. The combination of third place and virtual community are the sweet spot, and I'm still looking for any examples of booksellers doing it well.

    Mind sharing the the Twitter feeds of the bookseller and record store you referenced?

  19. I should say “who reports” rather than “who reported,” as the bookseller I'm talking about doesn't exist. Not locally. I wish they did.

    The record store, though, is @CriminalRecords.

  20. Skylight books in Los Angeles has a friendly community-oriented website and sense of its presence.

  21. Word just unveiled a new Web site a few weeks ago to correspond with its new e-commerce. I think it's very user-friendly, though if you want to see more community engagement, scroll down to the basketball for an explanation of its literary league. The events, which are described in detail on the blog and on Facebook, are also community focused: this weekend the store hosted a gift-wrapping open house with authors whereby customers could wrap the books they just bought and had signed.

    I'll have to talk to you offline regarding a clarification of what you're looking for on an independent business's Web site. I actually think it's good for indies' sites to be self-centered, since they by definition reflect their community. Regardless, the kind of customer service one gets — having someone sincerely welcome you, remembering your name, asking how your family's doing, and providing personalized recommendations — can't be replicated on the Internet.

  22. Skylight Books sounds like a great physical space; their site is solid and gets some of their personality across, though I wish their blog and Facebook page were better integrated to increase the engagement opportunities.

    Yet another site that doesn't allow reviews, too.

    NOTE: They're Twitter link at the bottom of their blog is broken; it has an extra http in it.


  23. I like WORD's new site a lot, and am impressed by what they've done on top of IndieBound's framework. I like that they have both their Twitter feed and Facebook page incorporated, and wish their blog was integrated, too. The inability to review books is a continuing disappointment, though.

    By “self-centered”, I mean most sites lack any overt connection to their community — I'd love to see the equivalent of the in-store bulletin board where meetings and services are promoted; news about hyper-local issues of interest to residents, like school board meetings, city council votes, etc. There's the belief that indie bookstores should be one the hubs of a community, and some pull that off in the physical space, but I've yet to see any do it online.

    The picture I used with this post includes a copy of my town's local paper in it for a reason.

  24. Powell's is the most common example given of an indie doing well online, and they're a very good one, but many would argue that they're much closer to Amazon than they are to the average indie bookseller; more aspirational than practical.

  25. How about Farley's Bookshop in New Hope, PA? (No personal connection, no longer even live in the area, but the store has always been one of my favorites, and their site looks good for community purposes, too… albeit not a lot of avenues for communicating TO them.)

  26. An author's presence on Twitter can help, too. I was standing in DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis last summer when Neil Gaiman twittered that he'd just finished signing a bunch of his books there. Within half an hour, someone comes in looking for signed Neil Gaiman books, having seen Neil's tweet. (The guy bought half a dozen, IIRC.)

    Mind you, not all authors are as popular as Neil Gaiman, who has more followers on Twitter than @TheLordAlmighty (though not as many as, say, Sockington the cat). And not every indie bookstore can boast the sort of relationship that Neil has with DreamHaven. But it can't hurt to use all the tools available.

  27. An author's presence on Twitter can help, too. I was standing in DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis last summer when Neil Gaiman twittered that he'd just finished signing a bunch of his books there. Within half an hour, someone comes in looking for signed Neil Gaiman books, having seen Neil's tweet. (The guy bought half a dozen, IIRC.)

    Mind you, not all authors are as popular as Neil Gaiman, who has more followers on Twitter than @TheLordAlmighty (though not as many as, say, Sockington the cat). And not every indie bookstore can boast the sort of relationship that Neil has with DreamHaven. But it can't hurt to use all the tools available.

  28. Guy, it's not just bookstores – I'm getting increasingly sick of a number of people on twitter whose attitude seems to be “I'm Indie, I deserve it”. I'm sorry, being Indie doesn't mean you deserve a thing. What matters is whether you're good. It just so happens that to be good in certain ways it helps if you're Indie. non-commercial experimental lit fic for example, or boundary-pushing ezines.

    And you've put your finger on it with bookstores – expertise and knowledge (the kind of knowledge that doesn't just come from a cookie-based algorithm but from empathy, conversation, and a shared passion). I want to give a shout out to two places.

    First up, the Albion Beatnik in Oxford – it's a shop that specialises in books about jazz and Beat Poetry.

    Second, what promises to be a great new venture, To @Hell With Books in Woburn Walk, London
    – opening tomorrow. It's set up by the guys from To Hell With Publishing (see @tohellwithemma on twitter), who specialise in first novelists directly subbing literary fiction. The shop will be devoted to literary fiction, special editions, journals, novellas, and chapbooks – a shop to get SERIOOUSLY excited about.

  29. Bodega as in Spanish wine house? I expect expert attention. Interestigly, I was thinking about bodegas earlier this week and just how extraordinary they can be after mentioning Frank Gehry on the “voice” post. Gehry designed the new bodega for Marues de Riscal, of course. Hmm, and Thomas Heatherwick (guy who designed the public art “The B of the Bang”) designed a store in NY for Longchamp – wouldn't it be cool to have a bookstore that was a design landmark?

  30. I like their local emphasis with pages on authors, books, and other businesses of interest, but the site design isn't very good and there's zero engagement happening there. Oddly, they DO have a blog, Facebook page and Twitter account, but you wouldn't know it from their website.

    PS: I've copied your link here and deleted the second comment, and included their other links:

  31. I saw the announcement of the To Hell With Books shop a week or two back and was intrigued. I vaguely recall one of the NYC indies had something similar in the 90s — Soft Skull or Akashic? — and it was a very curated selection.

  32. Soft Skull – is that the same outfit as Richard Nash? I'll be going down to have a look round next week and will fill you in – my dealings with them so far have been fantastic. Very very much hopig to get to do a reading there with some of the London Year Zero people.

  33. 'Independent' bookstores are really not independent, given that they rely so heavily on publishers for their profits. They may not be owned by a corporate chain, but they are still captive to the corporate philosophy of pricing and product placement that is the current (disintegrating) publishing world.

    I love non-chain bookstores. I want them to find a way to survive other than by relying on publishers. (Like, say, relying on their customers.) That would make them truly independent, and I think that would be a good thing all around.

    As to how they might do this, I see a nexus of two needs. First, bookstore owners are generally well informed about available product — both in popular categories and in terms of critical appeal. This positions them to meet the filtering needs of the overwhelmed customer. Second, bookstores need to become the point of purchase (or ordering) of POD books and wifi-available digital content, so that customers can land the titles they want in the format they want with minimal hassle.

    Whether the Espresso Book Machine is the ticket or not for POD, I cannot imagine an independent bookstore of the future that is not helping customers deal with POD and digital download issues.

    If bookstores truly embrace the filtering problem, this also provides a back-door way for bookstores to continue to pocket money from publishers who wish to pay to be put on 'favorite' lists. There will be all sorts of squawking about this, but in the end the money will move behind the scenes — as it does in bookstores and grocery stores and every other kind of store where proximity to customers equals an increased chance at a sale.

    I think there are a lot of possibilities, but a lot of testing needs to be done in the marketplace. The biggest hurdle right now seems to be the rapidly evolving technology, which makes investment in any particular solution risky. It reminds me of the early computer game days, when betting on the wrong video card could kill your otherwise capable title.

  34. While I'm the first person to jump on the Amazon bandwagon – mostly because I'm cheap – indy bookstores make me happy inside. My favorite thing about them is that they create a community that only book lovers truly understand. However, while 10 years ago an indy bookstore was an indy bookstore, that just doesn't cut it any more. And at the risk of sounding bitchy, unless bookstore owners are kicking ass by blogging, hosting a variety of events and basically really becoming INVOLVED, then I don't have a hell of a lot of sympathy for the change in tides.

    That all being said, I share your dream of one day owning my own bookstore (where I'll of course become enormously wealthy simply based on my awesome taste in books).

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