I have the privilege of working with several dozen of the Midwest’s finest independent bookstores, and in the two+ years I’ve been repping, I’ve seen a number of habits that these indies are using to hold on and serve their communities while Amazon.com gobbles up more of the market, while eReaders go mainstream, and while the big chains go through their own drama.
Here are some of the most important things that good indies do right (IMHO):
The Personal Touch — I have booksellers who know all of their regular customers by name, with personal relationships and investment in the customers’ lives. When I go in to sell my new lines, these booksellers already have buyers in mind for books as they order them from me, maintaining a strong revenue stream by offering A+ customer service, acting as personal reading consultants to these avid readers. That high level of handselling mastery and individualized service is something that, I think, simply cannot and probably will not ever be really matchable by digital bookselling. Even if you have a relationship with a bookseller or blogger online, the in-person ongoing connection, with the bookseller-customer relationship growing into a friendship performed through direct interaction is a singular and marvelous thing.
The Thirdplace Effect — Digital bookstores are space-agnostic — they exist everywhere with an active internet connection, but they don’t have their own cafes, they don’t have cozy chairs or connections to a local theatre to host a large author event. Some of my best bookstores are also some of the best community centers, drawing people for the environment they create and maintain — often with a cafe, and always including great partnerships with local organizations, local authors, book clubs and book groups. As a teen, my after-school hangout was a game store (The Game Preserve in Bloomington, IN), and much of why I loved that store was the way that it served as a community center for geeks of Bloomington. Bookstores do that for readers, writers, and other groups. Online relationships can be strong, but for me, online interaction with friends is just a hold-me-over until I get to see them next in person.
Giving Back — Indies make jobs locally, spend their money locally, and are invested in helping other local businesses. Not that chain stores aren’t invested in local business, but in my experience, my indie booksellers are deeply invested in their local business bureaus, independent retailer organizations, philanthropic groups, and more. When nearly all places online are one place, the preservation of the local is something that many people are re-discovering — trying to preserve and support local identity and local culture.
So when I see people complaining about independent bookstores charging for author events (http://www.edrants.com/paid-author-events-the-future-of-independent-bookstores/), I ask readers to remember everything indies do for the community, and that the real price for a bookstore to run an event is very high. In times where many booksellers are overworked and fighting to keep the lights on, I’m happy to buy an author’s book to get into a signing/reading, or to pay a cover to give back a little to the store so they can keep hosting awesome authors and being community centers.
What if you already have the book they want you to buy? Give it to a friend and share the awesome. Especially since you can probably get that book signed and personalized to the friend, making it a fantastic gift.
Ok, that’ll do for now.
*Steps off of Indie Bookstore Cheerleader Soapbox*