Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why Independent Bookstores Matter

In my first post I mentioned that I am often asked if we really need independent bookstores in an electronic age. After my frustration at the question subsides, I explain why the answer is a very definite yes. There are many reasons why we still (and always will) need independent bookstores, but it really boils down to two basic reasons: economic and social.

As corporate giants like Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon continue to dominate an increasingly competitive booksellers market, independent bookstores find it harder than ever just to survive. Yet these locally owned businesses contribute far more to the local economy than retail chains, according to several studies by the American Bookseller Association.

Major retailers present some obvious advantages to consumers. Barnes and Noble, for example, offers everything from books to music to movies, and sell coffee as well. Their children's section is larger than many independents' entire store. And they offer deep discounts that smaller business often cannot match. Both Barnes and Noble and rival Borders offer a comfortable environment, with large overstuffed chairs where customers can browse through books before making a purchase.

But there are costs to such convenience that are not so obvious. National chains take far more out of a community economically than they ever put back in. According to a study conducted by the firm Civic Economics in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, trading independent retailers for big-box chains weakens the local economy. This occurs because while local stores recycle a much larger share of their sales revenue back into the local economy, chains siphon most of the dollars spent at their stores out of the community, sending them back to corporate headquarters or to distant suppliers.

The study applies to all local businesses, not only bookstores, but bookstores are a part of the local economy, and therefore the findings are worth considering. The study found that spending $100 at one of the neighborhood's independent businesses created $68 in additional local economic activity, while spending $100 at a chain produced only $43 worth of local impact. The difference was due to four factors:

Local Payroll: The locally owned businesses spent a larger share of their revenue on local labor (29% vs. 23%), because they carried out all management functions on-site, rather than at a corporate headquarters.

Procurement: The local retailers spent more than twice as much buying goods and services from other local businesses. They banked locally; hired local accountants, attorneys, designers, and other professionals; advertised in local media; and where possible ordered inventory from local firms.

Profits: Because their owners live in the area, a larger portion of the local retailers' profits stayed within the local economy.

Charitable giving: The local retailers donated more on average to local charities and community organizations than the chains did.

Also, with regard to local sales tax revenues, sales effectively skirt sales tax collection entirely. None of us like paying taxes, but sales tax pays for the little things like our police officers, firefighters and teachers. Buying at a local independent bookstore keeps that revenue in your town where it belongs, serving the needs of your community.

Beyond the economic impact, the Andersonville study found that over 70% of the people surveyed actually prefer to patronize local businesses. Surveys have also shown that people prefer a more unique store and more personal interaction to the cookie-cutter, impersonal feel present in many large retailers. Sadly, many areas (including those as large as the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex), have no independent bookstore to patronize.

The personal interaction mentioned above is the other reason we need independent bookstores. It may be hard to believe in the age of Facebook and Twitter, but there was a time when our social activity wasn’t done from a distance in front of computers. Bookstores were among the places where people gathered to exchange and debate ideas on everything from literature to politics.

As important to readers as a lively discussion is helpful book recommendations from knowledgeable booksellers. Few of us can afford every book that catches our eye, so being able to avoid the bad ones is crucial. It is also a pleasant feeling in this increasingly disconnected society to see a familiar person who remembers that you like both the hard-boiled novels of Mickey Spillane and the occasional Agatha Christie. For me at least, ordering a book online can never replace ducking into a local bookstore on a rainy day, browsing down countless shelves of titles, usually ending up with a novel I’d never even heard of before that day, often based solely on the recommendation of the bookseller. It just doesn’t get much better than that.


  1. Well said. Very well said.

    I've been working at an indie ( if you're interested) for a few years now and I would have it no other way. Well beyond the actual book side of the business, the community that an independent bookshop creates is astounding.

  2. Vyxen...thanks for the comments. I checked out the Books and Company website, and one thing is obvious: from the desciptions on the staff page your crew has a blast working there. Not many people can say that about their jobs.

    Have a great day.

  3. Great post! I have to add that while the big chains may seem to offer more choice, we need to remember that it's the same choice everywhere. A central buyer chooses all the books for every outlet in the country. That means that a tiny handful of people have a huge impact on what gets sold, and even what gets published. Meanwhile, every indie bookstore makes its own buying decisions. So, the more indie bookstores, the more real choice for readers.

  4. Very good point about the central buyer for the big chains. It absolutely reduces the choices readers have, particularly in the area of mid-list titles and local authors. Thanks for the comments.

  5. Thanks for sharing this with the Independent Book Sellers Cause page on facebook. I sent it to all 10,968 members

  6. This is very true. Independent booksellers not only contribute more economic benefit to their localities; they not only give people more variety and better service; they also encourage people who like to read to indulge their habit by being friendly and helpful in a lot of subtle ways.

    The big chains don't hire their clerks, etc.because they love books. They seem to hire people who will work for cheap, whether they know anything about books or not.

    Dealing with a clerk who is clueless is not nearly as welcoming to someone who likes to read as dealing with someone who shares one's love of books and reading.

  7. As a 'new-kid-on-the-block' published author, getting one's latest novel into a chain is impossible unless one is a 'celebrity' publishing one's self-indulgent, ghost-written memoirs. Small independant bookstores seem more willing to grant an opportunity for new unknown authors to exhibit their work. Individual reader satisfaction & feedback is more gratifying than volume sales to the publicity-led masses.