Dear Indie Booksellers:
Whether your operation is brick and mortar, strictly online, or a combo plate of both, you have an important role to fill in the communities you serve. It makes me sad to see shop after shop shuttered, and I miss the ones I used to frequent. So please, know that as both an author and a consumer, I want you to not only survive, but to thrive.
But many of you, those whose daily operational thoughts and actions are totally dominated by fear of being driven out of business by Amazon and the few big chains that are still in operation, need some tough love. As you read this, bear that thought in mind: I’m tough because I love.
Also bear in mind, as you feel the blood rushing to your face and your jaw clenching in anger while you read, there are some distinct advantages to being a small, indie outfit (as you probably know better than I do), and there are indie booksellers that are doing just fine without so much as a glance in Amazon’s direction; I will get to that by the end of this post, too. Okay, deep breath; here goes.
Please stop obsessing about, and badmouthing, Amazon and the chains. It’s no more attractive to retail customers than attack ads are to voters.
Please stop badmouthing consumers who shop at Amazon and the chains. Most consumers will buy some things from Amazon and the chains, and other things from smaller outfits. There’s no better way to ensure they’ll start buying everything from Amazon and the chains than to insult them.
Please stop trying to base your marketing and community outreach plans on guilting the public into believing their Amazon and chain purchases are leading to the destruction of reading culture as we know it. Nobody wants to be bullied or guilted into a purchase, consumers know they have a right to make the best choice for themselves based on their specific priorities, and they hold that right pretty dear.
Know that you cannot possibly compete with Amazon or the chains on price; you will almost never win with consumers for whom price is the ultimate, or only factor in a buying decision. But also know: this is not a bad thing. Those consumers were never going to be good customers for you anyway.
Know that if your bookshop is generalist, carrying a smattering of current release books in all the most popular genres and a bit of merch on the side, with few exceptions (e.g. captive audience shops like those in airports), you cannot possibly compete with Amazon or the chains on selection. They have massive, distributed networks of gargantuan warehouses stacked to the rafters with nothing but variety.
Please do not argue that you can order any of the same books one can find on Amazon or through the big chains, because we live in an age of pathological convenience and instant gratification. Most consumers who have already made the trek to the store are annoyed if they must leave empty-handed. Now granted, it’s not like in pioneer days when Pa would take the wagon into town for supplies on a weeklong trip that could very well end in death on the way there or back. But consumer expectations and demands have changed.
A consumer who can click his mouse twice to order the same item, at a lower price, and often with no shipping expense and two day delivery, isn’t often inclined to wait around in your shop for a few extra minutes while you fill out an order form, then wait a few extra days for your supplier to get the item into the mail and a few more days on top of that for book-rate delivery. Faced with the same choice a few times in a row, it won’t be long before the customer stops bothering to come into your shop at all.
But also know: this too, is not necessarily bad for you. Consumers for whom convenience is the thing were never going to be good customers for you anyway, you’re better off without them.
In the great retail deli counter of booksellers, you’re prosciutto; please stop trying to be bologna.
Look around: bologna’s cheap and plentiful, you can even buy it at 7-11 and some gas stations. But people who have a taste for prosciutto know it costs more than bologna and isn’t as easy to find. Prosciutto lovers are also generally willing to pay a premium for the best quality, and will typically feel the same way about buying other, related items, like cheese and wine. Figuratively speaking, prosciutto lovers are the customers you want, and they want you right back. Does the high-end deli or wine shop try to compete directly with 7-11? Of course not. The high-end place doesn’t even deign to acknowledge the existence of 7-11, because it doesn’t consider itself to be in direct competition with 7-11. Neither should you consider yourselves to be in direct competition with Amazon or the chains.
Do, and offer, what the 400-pound gorillas can’t: passion and specialized knowledge not only of the products you carry, but the communities you serve. I’ve noticed that most of the successful, healthy indie retailers in any community I’ve ever called home have one thing in common: they specialize, and whatever it is they specialize in, everyone from the store owner right down to the stock boy is an absolute geek about it.
While all of the stores I’m about to talk about are brick-and-mortar with an adjunct website, strictly online indie booksellers can mimic many of their winning strategies. Where a brick and mortar store has an author reading, you can have an author chat or post an interview. Where the brick and mortar store has an in-store book club meeting every week, you can have an online book club. Where the brick and mortar store staff can wax eloquent on areas of expertise to customers in the store, you can post your specialized knowledge and analysis online, in a blog.
Dark Delicacies, a Burbank bookshop, specializes in all things gothic, horror and supernatural. It’s the go-to shop for books, knick-knacks, toys, author readings, and even some clothing and accessory items that fit that description. If you’re looking for a onesie with a zombie on it, this is the place to go. It’s a fun shop to visit, and filled with so many enticing items that it’s near impossible for fans of this type of fare to walk out without buying something. And if you want to know anything about horror/goth books, horror/goth movies, goth art, goth style, dark music or the like, the staff’s near-encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm can’t be beat. Sure, you can find many of the same items on Amazon at a lower price, but nobody goes to Dark Delicacies for the prices. Burbank is an entertainment biz mecca and it borders on the North Hollywood Art community, so Dark Delicacies is smack in the middle of its target demographic: unconventional people with unconventional tastes. No Amazon or monster chain store can cater so effectively to a specific market sector.
Hennessy & Ingalls Art & Architecture Bookstore in Santa Monica does for art and architecture books and related merch what Dark Delicacies does for goth and horror. The thing about art and architecture books is, they’re generally in a larger format and more expensive than other types of books, will often have special features that don’t come across in a screenshot, and it’s hard to make a purchase decision without actually being able to look at them in person first. Santa Monica is an upscale community that’s home to a lot of entertainment types (actors, directors, etc.), so while H & I certainly doesn’t want to gouge its customers, it doesn’t have to worry much about setting price points high enough to earn a decent profit on each sale. It’s become a real destination for students and lovers of art and architecture, well worth the drive for those not in the immediate area, and it serves its clientele very well.
Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop, located not far from my own neck of the woods, caters to schools, parents, and teachers in particular. Its selection of toys is easily dwarfed by a Toys R Us, but every toy in Mrs. Nelson’s is educational, and many of them are hand-crafted imports and award winners. Its selection of childrens’ and young adult books is likewise outgunned by Amazon and online chain booksellers, but that doesn’t matter. Just like at H&I, many of the books at Mrs. Nelson’s are large format picture books, popup books, and books that incorporate some kind of craft or game activity; these are all types of books you generally want to check out in person before making a purchase decision. The young adult selection at Mrs. Nelson’s is always better than that at any local brick-and-mortar chain store, as is Mrs. Nelson’s selection of books for teachers.
But here again, it’s the friendly, enthusiastic staff that puts Mrs. Nelson’s head and shoulders above any mere chain store or Amazon. If your kid has to do a book report on a biography, just tell the friendly staffer at Mrs. Nelson’s what grade your child is in, what her reading level is, and what her interests are, and you’ll be directed to a variety of choices that not only meet the requirements of the assignment, but any of which your child will actually enjoy reading. Any time an entire grade level at a local school is going to be reading some classic or other, Mrs. Nelson’s hears about it well in advance from its teacher and school administrator connections and will have plenty of copies on hand when they’re needed.
Mrs. Nelson’s has a calendar jam-packed with events and talks for kids, parents and teachers, some free and some fee-based (like the craft workshops), but probably the best events of all are the live readings from authors of beloved childrens’ books. The authors are always gracious enough to stick around afterward, signing books and meeting the kids who so love their work, and in cases where the author is also an illustrator, you can often find signed prints of illustrations from their books available for sale at these events. I’ve picked up a signed print from David Shannon’s wonderful "No, David!" at a reading there.
Nothing at Mrs. Nelson’s is cheap, either in terms of construction or pricetag. But I and plenty of other locals are happy to pay a little more for the higher quality and true community involvement on offer there.
So you see, it can be done, and it can be done well. I’m not saying it’s a simple thing to switch from a generalist store to a specialty shop, but I guess I am saying your survival may well depend on it. I want you to succeed, truly. I want a community dotted with Mrs. Nelson’s, Dark Delicacies and Hennessey & Ingalls, and I think plenty of other people do, too.