Why Indie Bookstores Are Thriving

James T. Berger headshot

James T. Berger
Senior Marketing Writer

Published March 18, 2020

Who would have imagined, with the huge decline in retail and shopping center sales, that independent bookstores would be thriving?

According to the Christian Science Monitor, in the past decade the number of independent booksellers has increased by 50%, from 1,651 stores to more than 2,500. According to Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), last year’s sales increased by 5%.

It was books that Jeff Bezos first targeted on Amazon.com. Big box stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble also set their sights on books. So why are the small, independent bookstores doing so well?

Why are indie bookstores doing so well in today's mass retailer market?

Harvard Business School Professor Ryan Raffaelli has the answers. For the last eight years, Raffaelli has conducted intense research on America’s independent booksellers. As a conclusion to this research he and his team issued a working paper, “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores.” The research effort included multiple interviews and focus groups, visits to bookstores in 25 states and an analysis of printed articles.

“My research examines how industries, organizations and business leaders reinvent themselves in the face of radical technological change,” Raffaelli writes. “In the context of retail, seismic shifts are affecting the way consumers engage with online, big box and local retailers. Independent bookstores provide a story of hope for community-led businesses.”

According to Forbes writer Pamela N. Danziger, the number of independent booksellers had hit record highs in 1995 when Amazon emerged. The combination of the great online retailer and the big box book retailers then sliced the number of indie booksellers by 43%, writes Danziger in an article entitled, “How Indie Bookstores Beat Amazon At The Bookselling Game: Lessons Here For Every Retailer.”  She adds that Amazon eventually destroyed Borders, which went out of business in 2011, and Barnes and Noble, which had to close a number of stores.

Harvard’s Working Knowledge author Michael Blanding distills Raffaelli’s findings for the resurgence of the indie booksellers to three main points: Community, Curation, and Convening.

  • Community: Bookstores have led the “buy local” movement, pioneering events such as Small-Business Saturday. Such events have made customers feel “virtuous” about spending money in their own neighborhoods. “It’s almost like a social movement,” says Raffaelli, who says indie bookstores are “anchors of authenticity in an ever-increasing digital and disconnected world.” “Community” also links other important community actors, such as schools, chambers of commerce, and civic organizations, and has created customer and community loyalty.
  • Curation: This accounts for the inability of online platforms to replicate the knowledge and passion of indie bookstore employees, according to Raffaelli. “Many booksellers are voracious readers and serve as trusted guides who can point their customers to new genres or up-and-coming authors they might not have encountered,” he says. “Customers leave the store excited and then want to come back.” By contrast, Raffaelli reports that Amazon’s reputation as “the everything store” can sometimes work against it, overwhelming consumers with too many options.
  • Convening: This refers to the increasing likelihood that bookstores serve as points for convening, expanding beyond author events to host book groups, children’s story hours, birthday parties, music events, knitting circles, culinary demonstrations, and other events. Several stores Raffaelli visited reported staging more than 500 events a year. “Bookstores have always been a place where people could convene and have a conversation about the issues of the day,” he says, adding that bookstore owners are increasingly seeing their competition not as Barnes & Noble but as Netflix and other entertainment apps that tie people to their couches. “Retailers who succeed are able to create a unique experience that consumers see as time well-spent. Not only do such events get people into the store—the number one goal of every retailer—but events also open the door for readers to connect with other bibliophiles, creating more demand for their products.”

Forbes’ Danzinger explains how well this business model is working. “While big-box Barnes & Noble reported revenues decreased by 3% in fiscal 2019 ending April 27, 2019, the ABVA reported sales of its members grew by 5% year-over-year in 2018. “That is a level of growth any retailer would be over-the-moon to report.”

About The Author

James T. Berger headshot
James T. Berger, Senior Marketing Writer of The Wiglaf Journal, through his Northbrook-based firm, James T. Berger/Market Strategies, offers a broad range of marketing communications, research and strategic planning consulting services. In addition, he provides expert services to intellectual property attorneys in the area of trademark infringement litigation. An adjunct professor of marketing at Roosevelt University, he previously has taught at Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BA), Northwestern University (MS) and the University of Chicago (MBA). Berger is an often-published free lance business writer who has developed more than 100 published articles in the last eight years. For more information, visit www.jamesberger.net or telephone him at (847) 328-9633.