Competing with big retailers requires creativity, keeping things personal, and developing alliances
What does it take to be successful as an independent bookseller in the second decade of the 21st century?
According to Rebecca Dowling, owner of Hockessin Book Shelf, it takes persistence, creativity—including alliances with local businesses—and loyalty to a devoted customer base. And an auto parts store next door doesn’t hurt.
She shares this piece of information while noting that her store has no coffee shop, which many shoppers have come to expect from big-box book retailers (or at least those that are left—more on that later).
“I’d rather be next to a food service than have the headache of having one in the store,” she says. “I think the draw is the books.”
While she doesn’t have any food service stores in the strip mall where her store is located, she does have the Hockessin NAPA auto parts shop. Though it doesn’t offer fancy Italian coffees, it has its benefits.
“We have lots of male suspense and adventure fiction customers, who I’m sure walk into our front door when they mean to walk into NAPA,” she says.
And walk in they do. In its 15 years of existence, the tiny shop on Route 41 has become a center for new and used books in the Hockessin area, as well as the launching point for local authors, both those published traditionally and independently.
And to the surprise of nearly everyone—not least of all the book store owners themselves—independent bookstores like Hockessin Book Shelf are surviving in a world where many believed they would die a quick death from being undercut on price, shown up by fancy in-store cafes and rendered obsolete by technology.
Instead, indie bookstore owners around Delaware saw the big bookstore business contract and one of their main competitors disappear entirely, leaving room for them to ply their trade with the skills that none of the big boys seem able to match.
Kindle (nearly) killed indie bookstores
Not long ago, one sure way to get a derisive laugh from people at a cocktail party would have been to say, “Hey, wouldn’t this be a great time to go into the bookstore business?”
That’s because those people, presumably having a moderate grasp of A) modern economics, B) online ordering, and C) how the Kindle and its e-reader brethren were going to kill the printed page, would have assumed you were an idiot.
The high-water mark for Kindle seems to have been 2011. That Christmas, it was as if Santa Claus carpet-bombed North America with rectangular e-readers, prompting an explosion in the market for all manner of electronic literary content.
The Kindle had been out since 2007, but the incarnations of the device that debuted in time for Christmas of 2010 were a step above their clunky and inelegant predecessors.
Bigger screens, better resolution and more intuitive navigation made them the gift of the season. EBook sales skyrocketed, and traditional booksellers felt the impact.
Barnes & Noble, with its own version—the Nook—was in the fray, too. But as a big brick-and-mortar business that depended mostly on sales of hard-copy books, it too felt the contraction in the traditional book market.
Meanwhile, the market’s other major retailer, Borders, simply gave up. Unable to compete with Amazon on price and being squeezed between the online retailer and Barnes & Noble, the company chose to close its stores.
So imagine a classroom representation of the dinosaurs’ extinction. The scrappy little indie bookstores would be the tiny, warm-blooded mammals, hunkered down in their burrows and maintaining their habitats while the lumbering giant lizards fought and died around them. Naturally, some of the tiny competitors were lost in the melee, but among those who survived, many have become stronger than ever.
Key to the evolution was the independent bookstores coming to understand what they were not—mainly Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
A person, not an algorithm
Recent sales statistics show that not only have eBook sales declined, but sales of hard copies have ticked upward. That’s good news for those still in the business of selling books—particularly books that readers can actually touch.
“We choose not to compete” with Amazon, says Jack Buckley of Ninth Street Books, which has been in downtown Wilmington since 1977. “We do our thing the way we do it. If you compete with Amazon, you basically compete on price. But if we compete on price, we lose. There’s no way we can stay open and do that.”
While Ninth Street maintains a website through the American Booksellers Association’s IndieBound program, Buckley knows that his store’s primary customer is someone who visits the store in person rather than ordering online. His customer, he says, is someone interested in receiving recommendations and wisdom from an actual human being—not an automated computer algorithm.
Buckley calls it “handselling”—booksellers making recommendations to customers based on their own preferences and knowledge of customer buying patterns.
“It’s the key to our success,” he says. “We have a staff of three, and there are areas that each of us will take as expertise based on our likes and dislikes. Our average time in bookselling is 35 years, so we’ve been around for a long time.”
On its website, Ninth Street also appeals to the bottom line economics of shopping locally: “More of the money you spend here stays here. For every $100 that you spend in our store, $68 goes back into the local economy, as opposed to only $43 from national chains.”
Unlike Ninth Street, Thomas Macaluso of Thomas Macaluso Used and Rare Books in Kennett Square, Pa., considers himself in direct competition with Amazon, dealing with far-flung online customers through ABEBooks.com.
“In addition to books, we sell antique maps,” he says. “When we started selling online I went out and bought a new map of the world and put it on the wall of the store. I’d put a red pin in for every country and state to which we’d send a book. And we’re talking thousands of books over the years.”
To help battle competition from Amazon, he goes as far as to suggest his customers avoid the online retailer altogether.
“I try to discourage them in the interest of the public and the retail booksellers,” he says. “I remind them that they have forced some authors’ royalties down and they have forced publishers to reduce their prices for Amazon, which otherwise threatens to not carry their book. It’s changed the industry.”
Those changes, he said, don’t bode well.
“The purchaser might be content to save a couple of dollars, but I don’t think it’s good for the country and its culture.”
Newark’s Rainbow Records, located on Main Street, also keeps its customers in mind when stocking an inventory of primarily used books.
“It’s a college town, so you already have seeking minds and people who want to learn,” says owner Miranda Brewer. As a result, works by cultural icons like Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski remain consistently popular. “Literally, I’ll put it on the shelf and within the hour it’s gone.”
Brewer also takes into account the economic constraints her customers face. “Being located where we are, we mostly get college students who want books but are on a budget, and our prices reflect what the students want to spend.”
Like Ninth Street and Hockessin Book Shelf, she is at something of a disadvantage because of the buying power and organizational infrastructure of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
“With the big box retailers, their cost is way lower because their volume is much higher, so I really have to watch every penny,” she says. “I’m just one person overseeing everything, where they have one person overseeing every micro element of their business.”
Keeping things creative
Hockessin Book Shelf’s Dowling says providing a high level of service to her loyal customers includes reaching them by partnering with other local businesses to offer a wider range of reader experiences.
“We live and die by our customer base. We’re really ground zero for the local economy,” she says.
In the store, she hosts author events and book launches for locally based and national authors. She welcomed 110 people for the recent launch of local author Sharon Roat’s novel, Between the Notes. In addition, she hosts a contemporary fiction book group, whose meetings are held in the store, complete with a meal catered to reflect the theme of that meeting’s book. Then there is a mystery readers group that meets at Hockessin’s Drip Café.
During the summer, Hockessin Book Shelf features children’s story times at Woodside Farm Creamery and a cookbook club that meets at Coverdale Farms. “That’s really fabulous because they just have this bucolic setting, a restaurant-grade kitchen and all the food comes straight off the farm,” says Dowling.
It’s this ability to form business alliances, make nimble decisions and meet customers where they live that really sets the independent bookstores apart from their larger competitors, Dowling says.
“If we want to create something or try something as a store or a community, we just do. We don’t have to apply to anyone for approval,” she says. “People like to come in and chat and we’re on a first-name basis with a ton of our customers. And I think that’s something you can’t do at a certain size store that you can do at a very local and small size store. No algorithm can do it.”