Tuesday, January 17, 2006

INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES NEED TO DO MORE

"Independent booksellers are under attack."

"The large chain bookstores are running the smaller independents out of business."

"Why buy a book at the cover price when I can go to
Barnes & Noble or Borders and get it for 20-40% less?"

I’ve heard these issues many times over the past decade but they were brought into a bit more focus when, this week, one of my favorite local bookstores (that’s been around for over forty years) decided to close its doors. The THUNDERBIRD BOOKSHOP has been an icon of the central California coast for as long as I’ve been alive, and it’s a horrible shame to see it fold up and blow away.

There have been multiple articles written about the plight of the indie bookstores and how they’re gradually vanishing off the brick and mortar radar screen; and it’s true. These "little-shops-that-could" are a comfort to many local book buyers, as well as tourists looking for local flavor rather than the impersonal service of the larger chain stores.

Having gushed about the necessity of indie stores, I find it necessary to also place some blame and possibly show a way to slow down this trend.

First, we need to look at the local scene. Let’s face it, local book buyers are what most indie stores need. They rely on repeat customers who are in the area year-round. Do you do this? Or do you jump in your car and race over to Borders and browse the 20% off rack? If you do drive over to your local chain store and bypass the indie, let me tell you how foolish you may be reacting. Most independents are located closer to town centers and thus are near enough for many people to walk to. If you drive to Borders for their discounts, how much are you really saving? In gas? Engine wear? Tire tread? If your local Barnes and Noble is five miles round trip, but the indie is only two or less, how much have you really saved? The answer is pretty obvious.

Nothing.

Secondly, some blame has to be placed on the independent stores themselves. Having seen the rapid expansion of chain stores and online booksellers, indie store owners must have had an inkling that this was coming. And what have they done to survive? Most have downsized (a major mistake). The Thunderbird Bookshop—that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog—did exactly this. Early on, the owner had a restaurant attached to the store so book buyers could purchase a novel then go and sit and enjoy a meal. There were also meeting rooms, and a metaphysical section with beads and crystals and cards. But the restaurant was sold off and the meeting rooms closed. The metaphysical area vanished, thus decreasing the size of the store in a huge fashion. The shop even closed its public restrooms, making people leave the store and walk down some stairs in order to find a bathroom. Does this sound appealing?

I must say, however, that I understand the mentality behind these moves. If you’re struggling to keep your doors open, you have to react, adjust, make changes. But are these the right ones? From my perspective (as a local book buyer) the answer is a resounding no.

So you may be asking, what IS the right move? That’s tough to say, but I’m going to stick my neck out here and chuck out some ideas ...

1. People love to do other things WHILE they’re browsing for a new book. They like to eat, drink coffee, sit in a chair, and read a few pages from this book or that. Indie stores need to have areas set aside for this. They don’t need huge swathes of real estate, just a few chairs, a small coffee bar (with quality coffee), and a snack counter. Something personal, cozy and appealing.

2. Online book purchasing has become very commonplace. Many students buy their books online now because they’re cheaper, delivered to their door, and can sometimes be purchased used. Why aren’t indie stores grouping together in their respective areas and promoting textbook sales in-house or online? They wouldn’t need to do this everyday, just when semesters are starting up in their section of the world, so inventory would only have to increase during certain times of the year.

3. Borders and Barnes & Noble are only part of the problem. Walmart, Longs Drugs, Safeway, and many other conglomerates have small book racks in their stores with discounted paperbacks. They buy in bulk because they’ve got thousands of stores spread out across the nation. How can a little independent bookseller compete with that? There are a couple of ways. First, the indie owner needs to go and see what types of books these places are offering and avoid overstocking them. They should focus on certain genres or other specialties that’ll appeal to locals and tourists alike. Perhaps they need a large murder mystery section. Or maybe a focus on local writers (John Steinbeck is pretty big in my area). Secondly, indie stores need to combine their strengths for buying power. To some extent, they have bonded together (the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, etc.), but they’ve only done so much. They need to do more. This will cause some disagreements as certain indie stores want this while others want that, but if they wish to survive, it’s time to come to the compromising table.

4. Use the internet! Internet book sales are going through the roof. Having an easily accessed and aesthetically pleasing website is crucial if indie stores want to stay in business. Offer used books as well as new. Offer free delivery if a buyer purchases a certain amount. Send out postcards to households in the area that announces a local book selling website that’ll "match Amazon.com" in price and availability.

Having written all this, I need to say that I’m not a bookstore owner nor have I ever been one. These ideas come from watching the trend of indie closures as chain stores pop up everywhere.

I make no bones about it, these are tough times. But we need to be asking equally tough questions: How much are you REALLY saving by driving to the chain store? Why isn’t your local store doing more to tempt you into their doors? Does your independent book seller have a website? Why haven’t you checked it out?

3 Comments:

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you state, Byron, you are not a bookstore owner. That said, you have no IDEA the costs involved in keeping a store open (especially one in that terribly pricy neighborhood, let alone manning a restaurant with declining numbers of customers, let alone the liability involved in leaving restrooms open for public use, any and many of whom would not hesitate to sue if they got their cuffs wet from a leaky faucet, for instance, or if they tripped over a piece of toilet paper. As for the "specialty sections" (metaphysical, etc.), if you knew May at all you'd know that if the customers had come to buy from those sections, she'd have been there for them. The Thunderbird has been a hub of literature and social events in the area for so many years, but when push came to shove, the customers just weren't there for that fabulous store or restaurant. Besides, why doesn't May get to retire when she chooses to do so?

 
At 3:49 PM, Blogger "The Fanatic" said...

My intent was to give my perspective, not to insult. The owner of The Thunderbird Bookshop has every right to retire, but the article that recently appeared in The Monterey County Herald made it sound as if one reason for closing down the bookstore was because of income losses. I wanted to show my take on this problem and how I perceived it, as well as ways to possibly rectify it. That's all.

 
At 12:12 PM, Blogger Chris Kemp said...

I'll never forget the padlock on the Thunderbird bathroom in its waining days. An iconic image in its own way,

 

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