By Joseph T. Sinclair
The news in 2013 was that independent bookstores are making a comeback. The question is, what are we talking about? A book, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, published by St. Martins Griffin, gives us an inkling of what this comeback is all about.
The author of the book, Wendy Welch, and her husband started a bookstore in a remote West Virginia town in 2008, the year of the Great Recession. And it has been successful. It seems to be a countertrend. After you read the book, however, you may come to the conclusion that it’s not a countertrend. It’s an old trend updated, one that may not have much significance for the publishing industry.
First, the Big Stone Gap bookstore is primarily a used-book store. Second, it’s small. Third, it’s a mom and pop business. Fourth, it may be more of a meeting and activities center than a bookstore.
Thus, it’s not a place where a significant number of new books are sold. It doesn’t have the large inventory of a Barnes & Noble, which attracts a lot of business. It’s essentially a very small local business, unlikely to produce a large sales volume. It’s also a very management-intensive mom and pop business that may not scale well; that is, mom and pop may not be likely to open branches in other places. Finally, to stay in business it must become a community center with food, activities, local author readings, club meetings, and the like. It must be a friendly place to hang out.
The more important question may be not whether independent bookstores are making a comeback, but whether B&N can simulate being an independent bookstore. Certainly it has tried. Over a third of a typical B&N store is devoted to music, gifts, and an Internet cafe, not books. B&N also promotes a myriad of local activities, but it just doesn’t seem that B&N can become a place to hang out. It doesn’t have the ambiance of intimacy and friendliness that many independent bookstores do. Can a corporation duplicate mom and pop?
What will happen in the bookstore business tomorrow and next year is a matter of conjecture. This article makes no predictions. Rather the point here is just to raise the question of whether the comeback of independent bookstores is meaningful for the publishing industry. More bluntly put, will independent bookstores sell new books in meaningful volumes?
For those interested in answering this question, there is a new bookstore in Napa, Bookmine (http://www.napabookmine.com), which opened in October 2013. A visit there might indicate the nature of the trend.
Michael Larsen predicts in his blog The One Safe Prediction: 10 Guesses About Publishing in 5 Years (http://sfwriters.org/blog/category/technology-and-writers/) that Espresso Book Machines (EBMs – http://www.ondemandbooks.com) will eventually make independent bookstores viable sellers of new books. That seems a reasonable prediction, until you consider that the price tag is $150,000 for an EBM and that they haven’t caught on in the six years they’ve been available. You have to sell a lot of books to lease or amortize a very expensive machine.
©2014 Joseph T. Sinclair. All rights reserved.