The Independent Bookstore Is Not Dead Yet

Membership in the American Booksellers Association is up

Image Source/Corbis

Amazon didn’t kill the "mom and pop" bookstore, at least not yet. The American Booksellers Association reports that its membership — made up of bookstore owners — has risen nearly 19 percent since 2009, according to a graphic by Christopher Groskopf in an NPR story by Eric Weiner

Numbers aren’t as high as they were in the mid-1990s, Whit Richardson writes for Portland Press Herald. However, it now seems that 2009 was the lowpoint, with association members numbering 1,401. Today they’ve reached 1,632. Bookstore fronts (owners may have more than one location) have increased from 1,651 in 2009 to 1,971. It's not a huge difference, of course, but the fact that it's not decreasing is something for physical booksellers to celebrate.

There are a few reasons that bookstores are managing to survive. Andrew Leonard reports for Salon

The collapse of Borders in 2011 is one big piece of the puzzle. (Removing a dominant carnivore from the savannah gives all the other animals a little more breathing room.) The end of the recession also contributed to a more nurturing economic environment.

But also, people as consumers apparently find something they value in the quirky shelving strategies and locally-owned flavor of independent bookstores. It might simply be a desire to "shop local" or it could be something more subtle. For NPR, Weiner spoke to several "real book" aficionados.

"Nothing matches the feel and the smell of a book," said Ross Destiche, a 23-year-old at shopping at Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C. "There's something special about holding it in your hand and knowing that that's the same story every time, and you can rely on that story to be with you."

And a professor of computer science at Yale appreciates the design of a book, which has lasted for centuries: "It's an inspiration of the very first order. ... It's made to fit human hands and human eyes and human laps in the way that computers are not," David Gelernter told Weiner. "It's not as if books have lost an argument. The problem is there hasn't been an argument. Technology always gets a free pass. ... [People] take it for granted that if the technology is new it must be better."

Those preferences appear to be keeping bookstores from shuttering completely. Leonard writes for Salon:

“We know that the popular narrative about all this is that indie bookstores — indie businesses in general — are supposed to be up against the wall fighting the behemoths, and largely losing the fight,”  says [Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association].

“The data is quite contrary to that. It’s absolutely not true. There are lots and lots of bookstore companies across the country that are increasingly profitable. Now, as with any small business, it’s tough out there and the competition is fierce. But there is a recipe.”

There’s even scientific evidence that people retain more information when they read paper books versus digital screens. The full ramifications of the shift to digital books haven’t played out yet, but given all that physical texts have to offer, their demise may have been exaggerated. 

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