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Indie Bookstores and Printed Page

Undaunted by Digital Headwinds

“Is it the end of the book?” blogs and debates have raged for years, and many publishers believed e-books would take over as readers embraced their convenience and accessibility.  

At best, local bookstores were forecast to become gift shops, offering a few books that one might buy for a sister’s birthday. So what has really happened?

New York City publishing and American Booksellers Association executives Len Vlahos and his wife Kristen Gilligan have experienced the changing “publishing eco-system” firsthand. They saw the development of e-readers and swelling popularity of e-books contribute to Borders’ closure in 2011. Industry analysts predicted that eventually consumer interest in e-readers and e-books would virtually kill the corner brick-and-mortar book shops and print book sales.

But Vlahos and Gilligan decided to go rogue and buy a bookstore. They left New York in 2011 and purchased The Tattered Cover bookstores from founder Joyce Meskis. Four years later, their brisk business thrives on the sale of new and used print books, literature-themed events, book signings, tea tastings, customer service and creating a “community social center.” They also help e-book customers place orders. 

“We don’t exactly have a dog in this [print versus e-book] fight,” he says. “We’re realists and partner with Kobo E-Books for those customers.” At the same time, the print business is flourishing. He credits today’s more nimble publishers who are able to restock print book inventories in a day or two, keeping store shipping costs and overhead down. In addition, he believes smart owners of bookstores, like the Tattered Cover, have learned to create a modern book lovers’ paradise.

“What the industry had expected was that e-books would follow a similar path as digital music where music and CD stores all closed. But that hasn’t happened,” he says.

Like Vlahos, Colorado Springs Poor Richard’s Book and Toy Store owner Richard Skorman says his bookstore’s business is not only good, it’s his best revenue generator. “I think that’s because when customers go to a bookstore, they see a world of books in front of them,” he says. The store also creates an inviting environment where one can buy a glass of wine and sit in a comfy chair. 

“You don’t get that online,” he points out. “We’re absolutely here and can talk about – and recommend – the books you love.” 

So it seems even in the digital age, U.S. independent bookstores are not only surviving – they’re thriving! Smart shop owners realize that when readers aren’t Facebooking, gaming or working online, they seek human connection, the tactile pleasure of holding a printed book and appreciate knowledgeable customer service. 

The resurgence of independent bookstores has been linked to what urban dwellers call ‘third places,’ like farmers’ markets, that add to a community’s sense of identity. As a result, their numbers have climbed 27 percent since 2009 to more than 2100 locations nationwide.

And even as Amazon markets 32 million+ paperbacks, hardcover editions, Kindles, audio CDs and board books in multiple languages, the corner, strip-mall or battered-and-worn Main Street bookstore with its average 150,000 or so volumes manages to hold its own.