It's Still Good to Be Independent

by by Samuel Knowles

In the front room of Books on the Square, a dozen toddlers and infants sit in rapt attention as Chris Byrnes reads Llama Llama Mad at Mama. A member of the staff for ten years, Chris has a voice loud enough to fill the room; indeed, one can hear the mama llama scold the baby llama from anywhere in the store. In their excitement, most children clutch their parent or babysitter. Others try to get as close to the action as possible, one nearly falling off his wicker chair in the attempt.
Located in Wayland Square, the shop fills one large, rectangular room with wood-paneled walls and rollaway bookshelves. In addition to Story Time, which takes place four times a week, the store holds political events for candidates, book signings with local authors, and monthly meetings for its five book clubs, each of which focuses on a different theme or genre. Among the more popular groups, the Queer Book Club meets mid-month and boasts about twenty to twenty-five members. Last week, about 60 people came to hear former Rhode Island attorney general Arlene Violet read from her new book The Mob and Me. “We’re more than a bookstore,” Byrnes says. “We’re a community meeting place.”
The staff credits a base of dedicated locals for keeping them in business, estimating that 80 percent of their customers are regulars—most in their thirties and forties and from the East Side. “Even if I don’t know their names, I know their faces,” Byrnes says.
“For whatever reason, some of us want to keep it going,” says David Heimbecker, a frequent customer. “We always find ways to spend money here, whether it’s personally or through our businesses. There’s more of a commitment, a personal interest taken in the customers here.”
But customer service alone is not enough to keep independent bookstores open these days. Indies, as many in the industry refer to them, rely on out-of-store events as a vital source of revenue. When the advocacy and support group Day One invited Maya Angelou to speak at a fundraiser, Books on the Square served as the official book provider. After packing a few cars full of Angelou’s books, staff members set up a table and sold copies to people on their way out, splitting the proceeds with the organization.
Jennifer Doucette, the store manager, says Books on the Square couldn’t stay in business without such events. The use of independent bookstores to supply local organizations and functions has declined in the last decade, in her view, with increased competition from online retailers as well as publishing houses themselves.
“There used to be so many more independent bookstores because schools used to order through bookstores,” she explains. “But when an elementary school has Scholastic come in for a book fair, that means they’re not having us come in.”

Out of Print
Back in the 1970s, indies controlled a much greater share of the retail book market. But with the advent of B. Dalton and Walden Books—large, mall-based bookstores—a wave of Indies closed down. In the ’80s, the independent bookstore reinvented itself, with new features like cafés, reading areas, and careful decoration. But as Barnes and Noble and Borders gained a greater share of the market in the late ’80s and early ’90s, indies faltered again. Then Amazon arrived in 1995, claiming another chunk of the business. Studies estimate that independent bookstores account for only five to ten percent of all book sales today. Perhaps the greatest threat yet, the advent of e-readers puts the future of the Indies—as well as the printed book itself—at stake.
At least one person in the market, Jack McKeown, remains optimistic. After holding positions at publishing houses including Random House and Persius Books, he now serves as director of New Business Development at Verso Digital, a division of Verso Advertising, and has a small bookstore in Westhampton, New York. Given his career history, McKeown is not exactly indifferent to the future of books. But his findings, published in Verso Digital’s 2009-2010 Survey of Book-Buying Behavior, have garnered the attention of many in the booksellers’ industry—particularly indies.
In an online survey of 110 million people, 23 percent of respondents ranked independent bookstores as their favorite place to shop for books. Even more encouraging for the future, over a third of those who chose indies are under 34. Among those who purchase 10 or more books a year, 27 percent said they favored Indies.
But according to the American Association of Publishers, e-book sales in the first eight months of this year totaled $263 million, a 193 percent increase from the same period last year. But McKeown’s survey suggests that fears of the coming end of the printed book may be unfounded—at least for now. Only 6.8 percent of respondents said they owned an e-reader—a relatively small share of the market—with another 8.2 percent saying they were likely to purchase one within the next year. In addition, roughly 73 percent of respondents who own e-readers said that they still plan to purchase printed books.
“Nobody talks about this,” McKeown said. “Certainly you’re not going to hear the digi-pundits talking about this. They are quite skilled in ignoring the statistics that don’t speak to their directional conclusions.” McKeown’s own estimate is that the e-reader market will soon plateau at no more than 20 to 25 percent of retail book sales.
The Scholastic 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report found that even among children, attachment to printed books is still strong. Among children aged 9 to 17, 66 percent agreed with the statement, “I’ll always want to read books printed on paper even though there are e-books available.” So the question on bookstore owners’ minds is, will it be enough to keep their doors open?

Better Off Than Some
Earlier this month, the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) held its annual conference at the Rhode Island Convention Center, in a large ballroom on the fifth floor, down the hall from a meeting on fire sprinkler safety. Most of the major publishers, as well as many smaller ones, set up tables with their titles for the upcoming season.
Katie Perry, the publicist for History Press, which specializes in regional history, said she was there mostly to field orders from shop owners who stopped by. Mark Binder, who writes and tells children’s stories in Providence, said he was more interested in the publicity. “It puts me in front of bookstores. Whether they buy the books or not is a crapshoot,” he said.
In addition to the publisher exhibitions, the conference included educational events. Some taught booksellers how to develop their websites; others explained how stores could lure customers of different ages.
It’s also an opportunity for colleagues to catch up in an industry that has grown even more decentralized over the last few decades with the closing of so many stores. “We have dozens of people who Twitter and Facebook, but only get to see each other a few times a year,” said Steve Fischer, the Executive Director of NEIBA.
Attendees had mixed views on what the e-book will do to their business. But a much-anticipated program called Google Editions may soon allow independent bookstores to direct customers to purchase e-books through their websites. Many store owners said they will seriously consider adopting the program when it comes out. But details are still scant, and it is unclear whether people will remember their local bookstores when browsing through titles at home.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Books on the Square has tried to incorporate new technology, keeping their website up-to-date, sending out monthly emails announcing special events, and allowing customers to order books online and pick them up in the store.
Despite the shop’s loyal following, staff members noted that the problems suggested by McKeown’s study are national trends—in particular, a phenomenon he calls “leakage.” A person enters the store and, after browsing through the titles, purchases the book online or at chain stores for a cheaper price. McKeown estimates that such behavior may represent up to $260 million in lost revenue for indies.
“Oh, yeah, we love that,” Byrnes joked. “But most people aren’t like that. There’s a basic humanity to most people where they say, you’ve just recommended this book to me—thank you. I’m going to buy it from you.”
When a hallmark bookstore in Belmont, Connecticut, went out of business, Fischer said he received a number of anxious phone calls from people in the neighborhood. “‘But we have to have a bookstore!’ ‘We can’t not have a bookstore on Main Street.’ ‘We’ve always had a bookstore,’” he recalled people telling him. “Well, I’m sorry, but between the landlord wanting more money and you all shopping online, you can’t support a bookstore.”
“People have a nostalgia for local independent retail and bookstores, in particular,” McKeown explained, “but their actual transaction behavior tends to parallel that of most Americans—towards convenience and value and price versus the context of the shopping experience.”
Will customers remain loyal to Books on the Square in spite of this trend? For now, enough people in the community value what the store offers to keep it in business—and, perhaps most importantly, Story Time running.

Samuel Knowles B’13 is one mad mama llama.