Much has been made about the importance of bricks-and-mortar bookstores as showrooms, places that will help prevent the book business from going the way of the music industry as the sales of digital books grow. But hundreds of showrooms and thousands of square feet of book retail space are about to go away when Borders closes its remaining stores next month. And even with interest in opening new stores or holiday pop-ups expressed by booksellers like Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., and Allison Hill, president and COO of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., it’s clear that something’s got to give. Whether the book business glass is half empty or half full, booksellers say they will need publishers’ help in order to keep the independent channel vital.
For Shanks, it all comes down to sitting at the same table. “Now that there are fewer of us, what we have to change is our relationship with publishers. We have to be part of a partnership, part of the conversation,” Shanks says. First on her list for discussion is credit. “We cannot be expected to build a book in 30 days and pay for as many as we took a risk on or return them,” she adds. “It takes us months to build an author like Alice LaPlante [author of the #1 Indie Next Pick Turn of Mind]. It doesn’t do anyone any good to send books back. I end up returning books that I have the potential to sell.”
Nor does it help when credit departments strictly adhere to net 30 days, or when they’re offshore. “I miss the human scale,” says Linda Ramsdell, owner of Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt., who was put on credit hold for a $17.25 invoice. “I guess I should pay my bills on time. But I’m just one person. It’s sort of hard to do everything, including working more hours so bills can get paid.”
Some booksellers advocate consignment as the solution. But despite some successes, it’s not necessarily the best approach for every store, especially ones with multiple branches. Plus it involves going outside of normal business practices for both booksellers and publishers. “It’s too clunky. I don’t think it’s a realistic thing to track,” says Vroman’s Hill, who has tried it. She prefers extended dating that will result in longer payment terms, so that she can replenish stock through a wholesaler if needed.
“Extended dating is great for us, and it’s simple. Right now that’s what I want,” says Mark Mouser, manager of general books at University Bookstore in Seattle, who praises Shambhala Publication’s decision to offer months-long terms in lieu of consignment. Mouser’s publisher wish list also includes making more books available for the store’s Espresso Book Machine. “Customers don’t want to wait, and they don’t. Even with Lightning Source, only a fraction of backlist titles have been okayed for the EBM. Print-on-demand in Seattle means we can get it for you in 10 days from LaVergne [Tenn.], when we have a machine sitting 20 feet away.”
And for the books that don’t sell, Mouser suggests remaindering in place. “Now, remaindering in place seems to be for titles chains bought in large quantities—after the holidays you go into Barnes & Noble with all these books at 40% off. One solution would be to broaden that and give a real option to independents,” he says.
Events are a key concern for P.K. Sindwani, owner of Towne Book Center and Cafe (formerly Trappe Book Center) in Collegeville, Pa. After renaming and relocating his store three months ago when sales in Trappe began to falter, he’d have trouble getting events. The new 8,000-sq.-ft. store in an upscale mall is 45% larger and sales have increased even more, up 75%. “Thank God I did it,” says Sindwani. “But even at this size, I’m having trouble getting good authors. Three days after I opened the store, Wegmans [food market] had Paula Deen. I begged the publisher, can she sign stock? and was told ‘no.’ The same thing happened with Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark. I was told that those author appearances were arranged by corporate headquarters.”
“Our businesses are totally event driven,” adds Changing Hands’s Shanks, who asks that publishers expand tour schedules. Tom Campbell, owner of the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., agrees. “Getting authors out into communities is R&D for publishing. That’s an important part of the long-term viability of the business,” he says. “The book sales at the event are good. But they’re about 50% or 60% of what we’re going to sell over the next couple months.”
Even with events, consignment, and strong sidelines like chocolate and socks, Boulder Book Store owner David Bolduc worries about the changing ecology of the book business. “It’s not like one thing is going to save you,” he says. “We’re still selling books. But as that equation changes, we’ll replace books with other things. How valuable is that to publishers for us to sell an occasional book?”