BAIPA board member Judy Baker found this recent article in the Index-Tribune about independent bookstores. Enjoy!
The worst is over for independent bookstores
INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER | August 18, 2016
Perched atop the Chamber of Commerce building on Broadway, in an unassuming former art studio, is the hub of independent book selling in Northern California.
Earlier this summer, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association packed up its San Francisco office and relocated to Sonoma. “And we couldn’t be more thrilled,” said Executive Director Calvin Crosby, who now also lives in town.
From his new perch downtown, Crosby heads up the most active and prominent regional association of booksellers in the United States. “Californians love their wine, chocolate and books,” Crosby said with a smile.
While Crosby is superstitious about saying it out loud, he implied that the worst is over for independent booksellers. He noted that a few new stores are in the process of opening in the North Bay, and he can’t remember the last time one of his member book stores went under. Some local stores, like Copperfield’s, have even expanded in recent months, and two others have changed hands.
“Back in 2008 and 2009, an owner couldn’t possibly sell, they would just close. Today, there are interested buyers. That’s new and a great sign,” he said.
According to the American Booksellers Association, book sales at independent stores were up in 2015 – by more than 10 percent – continuing a positive trend in recent years. Crosby said that the California numbers are similar, if not a little better. His membership of 300 spans from the Oregon border out to Truckee and down to Santa Barbara. The association advocates for its members, organizes events and provides a community for book sellers to share new ideas and best practices.
Crosby noted that bookstores face a unique challenge in selling a fixed-margin product. “It’s one of the few businesses where the seller can’t control the price, it’s printed on the book,” he explained. As a result, however, there is tremendous camaraderie. Bookstore owners are renowned for their eagerness to refer business to each other and for their willingness to share innovative ideas and best practices. “We’re like a family,” said Crosby. “And throughout the tough times, our members felt like they were all in this together and they did everything they could to help each other survive.”
Readers’ Books owner Andy Weinberger agrees wholeheartedly. “Independent book sellers don’t really compete with one another; because we’re cut from the same cloth, we feel like we all succeed when we put a good book in someone’s hands, that’s the metric,” said Weinberger.
He says they’ve always believed in sharing their experience with other book sellers.
“And without regional trade organizations like NCIBA to look out for our interests,” said Weinberger, “the American landscape would have long ago been overrun by the likes of Barnes & Noble.”
To survive, booksellers have had to be flexible and quick to pivot. “Store owners today are collectively smarter and more willing to adapt to business trends than ever before,” said Crosby. Hence new programming like book clubs, adult coloring parties, game nights and other non-author related events.
Bookstores today are a different beast than 10 years ago, explains Crosby. “They tend to offer a more diversified inventory. Readers’ is a great example,” said Crosby. “The store is very dynamic. They show their customers something new every time they walk in and that’s impressive in a small space.”
Weinberger adds, “Independent book stores have been slowly clawing their way back from the recession of 2008. We’ve had to be ingenious. I don’t want to say we’re in blue water now, but we’re far healthier than in the bad old days. Those of us that have survived have become smarter about the perils of retailing, and I think that will serve us well in the future.”
For example, successful booksellers now embrace their role as “tastemakers,” said Crosby.
“One of the best, most specialized things services you can get in a retail establishment is asking a book seller for help finding a book,” said Weinberger. “And it’s free.”
“Independent bookstores reflect the character of our communities,” said Crosby. “We support local causes. We participate in and fund community activities. We patronize other local businesses and keep our money in the community.”
California’s best-known bookshops have a long history. Book Passage has been around more than 40 years, Copperfield’s 35 years and Readers’ just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“A supportive town and a stable staff, like that at Readers’, who can make a living working at the store, really helps these locations to thrive,” said Crosby.
Crosby’s 300 member stores are heading into their busiest time of the year, the fourth quarter. Sales are strong, thanks to a continued boom in the young adult market and in a very strong market for children’s board books.
Sellers eagerly await the next blockbuster.
“If a Harry Potter book comes once a year, we’ll be all set,” said Crosby.
Contact Lorna at [email protected]