Independent bookstores are banding together in a national push to save
their businesses. There's more than nostalgia at stake.
by Michelle Chihara
Independent bookstores are the baby seals of small business --
vulnerable, endangered, and an almost sacred cause. Book people love to lament
their fate; the press, in many cases, has taken to speaking about them in the
past tense, as if they were an antique institution like drugstore soda
fountains. The New York Times Magazine recently described independents
as the "bookstores that everyone accuses Barnes & Noble and Borders of all
but wiping off the face of the earth."
It's not exactly a mistaken impression: the American Booksellers Association,
the trade group for independent retailers of new books, has seen its membership
drop from 5300 stores to 3300 since 1992. In the Boston area alone, three
specialty bookstores have closed in recent years. The chains, in the meantime,
have rolled out hundreds upon hundreds of branches since the early '90s, many
of them sprawling, library-size "superstores."
The challenge facing independent bookstores has been complicated in the past
four years by the success of Amazon.com, the online retailer that calls itself
"Earth's biggest bookstore," and which now boasts eight million customers. In
1997, it was joined on the Web by barnesandnoble.com, which now has more than a
million customers and claims to sell the largest number of titles anywhere. If
the baby seals were in danger before, now it's as if someone has given the
hunters laser harpoons.
The paperless bookstore
The bookstore of the future might look nothing like either Barnes &
Noble or Brookline Booksmith.
Instead, imagine a neighborhood "bookhouse." Light streams in from tall French
windows; some customers browse magazines at a coffee bar that runs along one
wall, while others sink into overstuffed couches. The staff roams around and
chats with patrons. Staffers might recommend a neighborhood book group; they
might help a man download the right book about coping with his rebellious
The one thing the staff doesn't do here is sell books. The texts themselves,
after all, are free. Cover art, autographs, and binding materials for a volume
printed to your specifications are for sale. You do all the purchasing online,
through the bookhouse, which has on-demand arrangements with printers and
distributors. The book itself arrives by courier. The bookhouse staff are paid
only to be informed, literate, and helpful.
And maybe to serve coffee.
This is the kind of future envisioned by Web prophets such as Nicholas
Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab, a future where "bookstores aren't stores, but
places you go for a serendipitous experience, to meet people, have a cup of
coffee." The "bookhouse" might sound like an extreme, but it's a logical
extension of several current trends. With the growth of e-commerce
and the approach of on-demand printing, physical bookstores are realizing their
value as "destinations" as much as suppliers.
It's a scenario to which, ironically, independent bookstores would be well
suited. If inventory becomes completely virtual, true expertise will become a
bigger competitive advantage. "But clearly a large percentage of books are
going to be sold online," says Len Vlahos, of the American Booksellers
Association. "And independent bookstores are well suited to being the
successful bricks-and-mortar seller in that environment, because it becomes
about the experience, not the commodity. Experientially, we'll be the ones
who'll be the winner, because of that human connection."
For all the sentiment attached to the issue, there is more at stake in the
bookselling field than our collective nostalgia for a lost kind of retailing,
or even than the livelihood of a few thousand independent businesspeople.
Bookstores, after all, traffic not just in paper and cardboard, but in content.
In the book market, a diversity of retailers translates very directly into a
diversity of ideas.
"There are lots of reasons to fight for the independent bookstore," says Rusty
Drughan, president of the New England Booksellers Association, "but the two
primary ones have to do with freedom of expression and the flourishing of ideas
-- with the very possibility of social change."
After a decade of watching their market share slowly erode, independent
bookstores have begun to take action as a group. On February 5, the
American Booksellers Association (ABA) announced a new project: "Book Sense,"
both a national marketing strategy and a Web site, designed to save the
independent way of life.
Whether the indies' survival strategy succeeds is important not just for them,
but for everyone. The question is whether it's too little, too late. The future
of bookselling is clearly molded in the independents' image, but will they have
a place in it?
Standing among the dark wood shelves and ladders of Cambridge's Harvard Book
Store, Dan Albano, the store's "academic liaison," has a rumpled, professorial
charm. He's very much a salesman -- "Ask me for one, I'll show you four," he
says -- but he's also passionate about what's between the covers of his
product. A Cambridge native and 13-year veteran of the store, Albano describes
his areas of expertise as "philosophy, literary criticism, politics
. . . oh, some of everything." He knows many of the academics who
come through his doors by face as well as by name; crushing a beige scally cap
in his hands, he describes a visit from the president of Dartmouth College with
the enthusiasm of a fan describing an encounter with a rock star.
Albano's job title reflects a decades-long symbiosis between the store and its
surrounding neighborhood. Owner Frank Kramer, whose father founded the business
in 1932, has watched his store evolve from a purveyor of bargain used books and
remainders into a general bookstore with scholarly specialization. "We have a
large community of scholars," Kramer says, "so our inventory began to reflect
that. Our motto is access to the world of ideas."
With its oak and carpeting, its author events, and its 65-year relationship
with its neighborhood, Harvard Book Store is the kind of place people think
about when they picture a quality bookstore. And as recently as the 1980s, this
was the primary face of retail bookselling. At their peak in the late '80s and
early '90s, independent stores such as Harvard Book Store -- and Brookline
Booksmith, and Cambridge's WordsWorth Books -- could claim more than
30 percent of the entire national book market. "It was the heyday of
independent bookselling," says Richard Howorth, president of the ABA. It was
also the heyday of bookselling in general: in 1985, America led the world in
book-title production (it's now fourth or fifth), and "consumer book-purchasing
figures rose at incredible percentages," Howorth says. It was an independent
bookseller's market. Indeed, the nation's first superstores were independently
owned: huge, polished book destinations like the Tattered Cover, in Denver,
Colorado; Powell's, in Portland, Oregon; and Cody's Books, in Berkeley,
California. Chain bookstores, meanwhile, were mostly sterile mass-market
outlets like B. Dalton and the now-defunct Crown Books, designed more to
move bestsellers and calendars than to draw the literary crowd.
The heyday of independent bookselling, however, didn't last past the early
'90s. "Corporate and capital powers saw what was going on," says Howorth, "and
began imitating the feel of these independent stores." They also began
outgunning them in square footage, publishing-industry clout, and marketing
power. Today there are more than 500 Barnes & Noble superstores, and every
one of them looks a lot like the Harvard Book Store, or an old private library
-- forest-green carpets, dark wood, and brass fixtures. The superstore chain
Borders Books and Music cultivates an airy, university-library feel -- not
surprising, since Borders began as an independent bookseller in Ann Arbor,
Michigan. (After Borders expanded to 19 stores, Kmart bought the business for
$190 million in 1992 and built it into a nationwide chain before spinning
it off in 1995.)
The superstores now average between 30,000 and 50,000 square feet each, with
more than 150,000 titles. That's five times the size and three to five times
the selection of the average independent. Big stores aren't always a bad thing;
in some suburban and underserved areas, they bring book lovers access to a
better, deeper selection. But in the markets already built and served by strong
independent booksellers, competition has been ugly.
"The chain stores don't just imitate independents in generic ways," Howorth
says. "In Austin, Texas, a Barnes & Noble located next to a well-known
children's bookstore called Toad Hall got a big toad and put it in their
children's section. That's not something Barnes & Noble does in other
stores." Industry insiders say that the chains will home in on the local
markets of significant independent stores. In Brookline, for instance, Barnes
& Noble opened a branch right up the block from 38-year-old independent
Brookline Booksmith. In Denver, the first wave of Barnes & Nobles pinned
the four corners of the city around Joyce Meskis's indie powerhouse the
Tattered Cover, and the chain has opened eight stores in her area since then.
"We're talking," says Howorth, "about very specific predatory activity."
In part, the chains act aggressively because book retailers are fighting each
other for shares of a stagnant market. Overall adult book sales have been flat
for at least two years. It's a zero-sum game, at best, and the independents'
market share has dwindled to 17 percent of books sold. The chains,
meanwhile, have grown to more than a quarter of the market.
Those numbers represent more than a shift in who sells you books; they
represent a shift in what we get to read. The independents' share of the market
is divided among three thousand to four thousand stores, each with a different
location, a different owner, and a different buyer making decisions about what
to stock. With chains, however, an increasing majority of the buying decisions
for their entire share of the market come from the corporate offices of just
two companies: Barnes & Noble in New York City and Borders in Ann Arbor,
"Nationals operate based upon economies of scale," says Harvard's Kramer, "so
central buying is how they want to work. If you put a local buyer in every
bookstore, your costs go up." Consolidated buying gives the chains dramatic
power over what gets sold. And that power, some say, has already had an adverse
effect on the market.
"Through superstore expansion," says Howorth, "sales of 300,000-plus-copy
sellers have increased steadily. That figure, when taken with the figure that
absolute sales have decreased, means that so-called midlist books,
smaller books, marginal authors, and books from small presses are simply not
making it to print."
To Howorth, increasing homogeneity could even explain the stagnation of the
American book market. "My theory," he says, "is that the market is stimulated
by independent booksellers. They're incubators and catalysts for new ideas, new
authors, and new growth."
One of those new authors is Arthur Golden, a Brookline resident and author of
Memoirs of a Geisha. Golden credits much of his initial success to the
independents' "hand-selling," the industry term for talking to a customer about
the merits of a specific book. "It was a big book, 430 pages or so, from an
unknown author on an exotic subject," he says. "That's a three-tiered death
sentence for a new book. My book was absolutely hand-sold by the
"The Wall Street Journal bestsellers list only reports figures from the
chains, and [Memoirs] didn't even appear in the top 15 for a while. It
was one or two or three at most indies, and at the same time it wasn't even on
the Wall Street Journal list."
The book spent two months under the radar before it hit the New York
Times bestseller list, where it has stayed since the fall of 1997. If
Golden is right, then in eight weeks the indies managed to move a book out of
obscurity and into the limelight. "Without independents, I don't know what
would have come of this book," he says.
Golden is far from alone. Barbara Kingsolver wrote a lament for a Tucson
independent in the Arizona Daily Star, saying, "I owe my career to
people such as those at the Book Mark who first guided readers to my words." On
the local level, over at Harvard Book Store, Dan Albano claims to have
single-handedly placed academic titles such as Sex and Social Justice,
by Martha Nussbaum, or the more arcane From Stimulus to Science, by
W.V. Quine, on the Boston Globe's bestseller list.
Albano selected those books for author readings, and he and the other staff at
Harvard also choose the books that go in the window displays and featured-book
shelves. Contrast this with the Barnes & Noble in downtown Boston, where
the books in the windows and on the prominent display shelves -- as well as the
books displayed on tables throughout the store -- are dictated by marketing
deals between the corporate office in New York and individual publishers.
Independent bookstores are not saints in this respect, either: some of them do
accept payments for featuring certain books in their windows. Some of them
might have started accepting such payments long ago, according to Andy Ross,
owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley, California, except that publishers tend to
offer the plum packages only to the chains. Those types of deals are the
subject of a lawsuit that's now in discovery in a district court in California.
Twenty-six independent booksellers are suing Barnes & Noble and Borders for
engaging in "a pattern and practice of soliciting, inducing, and receiving
secret, discriminatory, and illegal terms from publishers and distributors."
"It isn't that independents are all great, or that chains are all bad," says
Ross. "The important thing is that they're all different. It's the diversity in
the distribution of ideas that would otherwise be lacking. The chains are much
By its nature, that power tends to squash the smaller, more marginal voices.
Neil Gordon, editor of the Boston Review's New Fiction Forum and a
long-time veteran of the book industry, believes that the corporatization of
the book world squeezes out books that might not sell, but might matter.
"If you're only applying economic criteria," he says, "well, then a book that
sells only two or three thousand copies can't be sold. A book of that sort is
less well stocked by chain booksellers, less well handled by big book
distributors. It has to be. They're looking to make a profit, and they've got
stockholders to take care of."
Gordon, who's also a novelist, has worked on all sides of the book-publishing
industry: bookselling, publishing, running a Web site. "The problem," he says,
"is that books are a particular kind of product. You can't say that a book that
sells a million copies is necessarily better. In the future, it [the smaller
book] might turn out to be a classic. It might, even now, be changing people's
lives, just not as many. Does that book deserve not to be published?"
These issues may seem abstract. But Cody's Andy Ross points out that they have
concrete ramifications. "In 1989, when the Iranian government issued its death
threat against Salman Rushdie, Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, and
Waldenbooks yanked The Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide," he
says. "Over 1500 bookstores stopped selling The Satanic Verses because
of a decision by a few corporate executives. It's only because independents
continued to carry the book -- at least most of us did, even in the face of
considerable threats -- that the book continued to be available to the American
public." His own bookstore was bombed during that time, Ross recalls, but he
says he'd sell the book again.
"Had the Rushdie affair occurred today," Ross says, "there are huge markets
that would not have this book available, because independent bookstores no
longer exist in many markets."
In 1995, a new player entered the book game -- one that would, incidentally,
make it a little harder to bomb The Satanic Verses off the
shelves. With the superstores rolling out at full steam, the Web site
changed the game entirely, yet again.
"It's just our bad luck that the one business that has come to be synonymous
with the Web is a Net bookstore," says Hillel Stavis, who owns WordsWorth Books
in Harvard Square. "But it's logical, in a way. The databases that you need to
find books are consonant with the new technology."
Amazon.com was the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, who left a venture-capital job in
1995 to pursue a visionary idea: he took the information that every bookstore
has on its computer and gave the public access to it. Then he promised to ship
any book in print to his customers within days.
It was radical, but it was also simple. In fact, it sounded too simple: early
prospective investors were wary that in a business with such a low barrier to
entry, Amazon would soon be squashed by a competitor. But Amazon's real genius
was in what business analysts call "building its brand" -- in other words,
creating a business people didn't just use, but felt warm and fuzzy about. Like
the big chains, Amazon did this by taking a cue from the way independent
bookstores operate. The site couldn't create the physical feel of a literary
den, so it did it virtually: Amazon solicits scores of customer reviews, posts
in-house reviews, and generates personalized reading recommendations for
customers. Amazon.com will even send you an e-mail
reminder when the latest Grisham novel hits its shelves, so to speak. With
touches like that, Amazon built a virtual community of readers -- essentially,
an online version of a friendly neighborhood bookstore. Says Stavis: "They
pioneered automated intimacy."
From the beginning, the press fawned over Bezos, and he made the most of
it, delivering books to his millionth customer by hand. The result is a company
with $610 million in sales for 1998 and a remarkably loyal following.
"Sixty-four percent of our business comes from repeat customers," says Amazon
spokesperson Bill Curry, which -- in a rapidly growing business -- means that
the vast majority of Amazon's customers come back. Because it spends so much on
marketing and development, Amazon.com has yet to turn a profit, but its
position as the strongest brand in Web commerce has pushed its market value to
between $20 billion and $25 billion. (Barnes & Noble, by
contrast, is valued at just over $3 billion; Borders, around
Amazon's success caught an entire industry off guard -- not only the
independents but also the national chains. Even the most cavernous superstore
can't match the convenience of shopping from a list of all books in print from
your desk at home. (This hasn't been lost on Barnes & Noble, which launched
its own site in 1997. It then partnered with multinational media giant
Bertelsmann AG in October 1998, with each company investing
$100 million in the venture. Amazon and barnesandnoble.com are even now
locked in an advertising battle of my-warehouse-is-bigger-than-yours, but with
the virtual nature of the debate, it's hard to tell who's winning.) It's not
hard to imagine the effect of Amazon's seemingly bottomless marketing budget
(according to Information Week, Amazon spent $37.5 million on
marketing in the third quarter of 1998 alone) on the independents whose
customer-service tactics Amazon is imitating.
Amazon itself downplays any connection between its rise and indies' decline.
"In 1996, our best-selling book was a computer book," says Amazon spokesman
Bill Curry. "But in 1997, it was [Jon] Krakauer's Into Thin Air. So at
least into 1996 we were a niche computer bookseller. We have been really
selling mainstream in a big way for 1997, 1998, and three months of 1999.
"The unfortunate demise of the indie bookstore," he says, "began long before
Curry may be right. "Independents had already become attenuated and
marginalized," says Cody's Andy Ross. "Amazon is a little like the straw that's
breaking the camel's back.
"The real problem with the Internet bookseller," he continues, "is they don't
seem to have to make money to survive."
The truth is that no one knows exactly what effect Amazon.com will have on the
industry. But as it barrels onward, the company is forging an entirely new
model of bookselling, where stock on hand can seem like a matter of perception,
and where nice surroundings are much less important than a customer's
feeling about your business.
The evolving bookselling model includes some interesting new features, as well
as some questionable old ones. The New York Times reported in February
that Amazon was taking marketing money from publishers in exchange for promises
to feature certain books on its front page under the heading "What We're
Reading." Consumers were upset, and expressed their feelings of betrayal in
to the company. Curry agrees that part of the reason for this reaction is that
Amazon's customers saw the online bookseller in much the same way they see
Feelings aside, Amazon is not a neighborhood bookstore. But it isn't exactly a
chain, either. Given that its prime "real estate" -- the screen space that
corresponds to a front-of-the-store display -- is small, Amazon can't push as
many bestsellers as the chains. And there is some evidence that Amazon, unlike
the chains, is having a positive influence on sales of midlist books. Overall,
it's too early to tell what effect Amazon's personalized recommendation
software, or keyword search function, will have on which books get sold. It's
possible that for the world of ideas, the cumulative effect of online
bookselling may not be that bad. For the corner bookseller, though, it's like
having another 800-pound gorilla to contend with.
Faced with both the chains and Amazon, the independents are banding together
for safety. The ABA's new "Book Sense" program -- which ABA director of
communications Len Vlahos calls "a national branding identity campaign" -- is a
move that Brookline Booksmith owner Dana Brigham says independent booksellers
have been "clamoring for for years."
As a marketing proposal, Book Sense is an extension of a campaign already in
place among booksellers on the West Coast. Last fall, the Northern California
Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA) spent $75,000 on putting print ads
with the Book Sense logo and some text into local newspapers across
The ads read:
Imagine a place in your neighborhood, committed to books and the people who
love them. A place where insights are shared with delight, and where you enjoy
personal service, grounded in a passionate knowledge of books. We're
independent bookstores with Book Sense, a new symbol of excellence in
bookselling. And we invite you to shop where the Book Sense mark of distinction
is proudly displayed.
Hut Landon, executive director of the NCIBA, coordinated and oversaw the Book
Sense launch. "We wanted to have a 'Got Milk?' campaign for bookstores," he
In California, the ads generated more than 120 calls to the NCIBA's offices
from curious consumers, and Landon says that stores reported a "fantastic"
"I can't say that their business has gone up 20 percent or anything, but
virtually without exception, they say that this is a huge morale boost," he
says. "That's not insignificant. We're finally doing something on a large
As it turns out, the ABA has hired the very agency responsible for the "Got
Milk?" campaign, Bozell Worldwide. And the Book Sense tag line, inherited from
the California campaign, is catchy: "Independent stores for independent
Landon points out that if the ABA can sign 1000 bookstores up for Book
Sense, they'll collectively rival the chains, at least in terms of numbers of
outlets. They're on the way: since the announcement of Book Sense as a national
campaign a month ago, almost 700 stores have already signed up -- well over
halfway toward the ABA's original 1000-store goal.
"We're not trying to put the big boys out of business," says Landon. "We're
trying to retain our share of the market. We want to say, `We're here, too. I
know you see ads for Barnes & Noble and Amazon everywhere, but we offer
some things that they don't.' "
He compares the branding campaign to that of True Value hardware stores --
although those buy their merchandise collectively, which the independents will
not do -- or to FTD florists. Both of those are national networks of
independently owned businesses united under a collective brand. Book Sense
stores will display the logo on their bags, in their stores, and on their Web
sites. The campaign will focus heavily on print ads, but Vlahos says they're
likely to do billboards and other media as well. And as with FTD, Book Sense
will let customers buy gift certificates for any store with a Book Sense decal
in its window.
The campaign is more than just a marketing plan, however. It's also a
strategy for dealing with the Web. Across the board, bookstore owners and
employees cite the Internet as their biggest current threat. They speak with
furrowed brows about the numbers of customers who walk out of their stores
saying, "That's okay, I'll just get it on Amazon."
The premise behind Amazon is an easy one to exploit: any store can access the
database of books in print and order any book. Resources are needed only in
order to attract the customers, make the site easy to navigate, and get lots of
books quickly. In other words, as the business scales up, it gets expensive.
Some independent stores have already started to sell online, and most have Web
sites. WordsWorth has an elegant and convenient site, as does Harvard Book
Store. And the Boston Globe recently reported that local stores are
already turning profits online, unlike Amazon. But most smaller stores, such as
Brookline Booksmith, are still working out the online kinks.
For all its stores,
will provide a common set of online tools.
The ABA has signed a deal with a company called Muze to provide the database of
book information, and with a Web developer called iXL to design and develop a
central Book Sense site.
Starting in August, stores that don't already have Web sites will be able to
drop information into ready-made Web templates provided by BookSense.com.
Stores with existing sites will be able to hook them up to a common "back end,"
giving customers access to a database and fulfillment resources that match
Amazon's. Customers will be able to look up their nearest independent by zip
code, and then order books directly from the nearest store; they'll also be
able to determine which books are actually in the store, which will
sometimes mean faster service than even Amazon's quickest delivery.
For all its possible convenience, the plan also carries certain risks. If
bookstores aren't careful, shared content and templatized Web sites -- to say
nothing of a national "branding" campaign -- could encourage the very
homogeneity that the ABA is trying to fight.
"The challenge is to make this not feel like a franchise," says Landon.
"It's a collection of stores." The ABA's Vlahos says that the Book Sense stores
are "going to have to be good about populating their sites with local content,
about changing the content, promoting local events."
But ultimately, Vlahos says, Book Sense will simply help independents cement
what they've already got in each of their markets. "If you see a recommendation
from Harvard Book Store," says Vlahos, "that recommendation is branded for you
in a way that Amazon and Barnes & Noble can never brand it. Their
recommendation doesn't carry the same kind of weight, and trust, that an
independent-bookstore recommendation carries."
For Howorth, it's not just a matter of business. "Every one of us
realizes what's at stake, for society, for a healthy reading society," he says.
"If we don't fight together, then we're not going to have much of a
For the stores, this is a way of reclaiming ground they've ceded
to bigger players. In a retail world already dominated by two species of
bookselling behemoth, the only competitive advantages left for the independents
are trust, weight, human connection, and knowledgeable staff. In a world of
50,000-square-foot superstores and $50 million marketing budgets, these
are subtleties -- but the independents are betting the farm on them. "They're
subtleties," Vlahos says, "that can win out over time."
Michelle Chihara can be reached at mchihara[a]phx.com.