Going into this year's BookExpo America, things were not looking particularly upbeat for independent booksellers. The most recent ABACUS study of bookstore sales, for 2009, showed a loss of 8.4% for 61% of the respondents; the other 39% showed only a modest gain of 3.8%. The study of 2010 sales is unlikely to offer a rosier spin. Nor did 2011 get off to an auspicious start. The onslaught of e-books, unrelenting bad weather, rising gas prices, and Borders's store closing sales took their toll on indie retailers during the first quarter. Yet new bookstores continue to open, and established stores like Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., the Golden Notebook in Woodstock, N.Y., and the Red Balloon in St. Paul, Minn., have found new owners. According to Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, the long slide in bookstore closings has come to an end; the association added 100 new members last year. Plus bookstores continue to be the place for discovery of authors and books, said Teicher in a well-received address on the future of bookselling at the association's annual meeting.
While there's no getting around the fact that these are "challenging times"—a constant refrain heard throughout the show—Teicher affirmed the ABA's commitment to its members to find new, sustainable bookselling business models. But even before that happens, booksellers have begun taking steps to find workable models of their own, and many of their efforts were showcased at panels ranging from "E-books 201" to "Reimagining Your Store."
"I think there's hope," said events director Karen West of Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., which is considering adding an Espresso Book Machine to offer self-publishing to those at the store's writing conferences. "We evolved into the bookstore-as-community-center model. There's no going back. Books will be the centerpiece of the festivities, not the sole focus."
HugoBookstores, which has three locations in greater Boston, will begin testing knitting next month. Although many bookstores do well with craft titles and host knitting groups in their stores, HugoBookstores may be the only one to begin selling yarn. After driving through the area and discovering that there were no yarn stores within a 20-mile radius of its Andover Books store in Andover, co-owner John Hugo decided yarn could be the right sideline.
Other booksellers are testing one-of-a-kind items more closely related to what they already sell. Bluestockings in New York City, for example, has begun commissioning cards from local artists, while [Words] in Maplewood, N.J., stocks T-shirts from all nine local elementary schools. The store, which has a mission to welcome employees and patrons with autism, also runs a vocational training program for autistic children. "We made our place a center for the special needs community," says owner Jonah Zimiles, whose son is autistic.
Other booksellers are looking at taking advantage of e-books and digital downloads. Despite Google eBooks getting off to a slow start for IndieCommerce stores—with only 153 stores reporting sales of at least one book in April, and 44 selling 20 or more since the program's launch in mid-December—some are finding work-arounds to give e-books a jump-start in their stores. At McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., manager Matt Norcross does tech seminars for customers to show them how to download a digital e-book and associate e-books with his store.
At the e-books panel, Norcross reminded booksellers that it's important to let customers know that they sell e-books; he even posts a sign in the bathroom. He also recommended that booksellers put QR codes on events posters that link to their Web sites. He also creates $5 Givex gift cards and periodically hands them out to people reading on their iPad. "You can do this with McLean & Eakin," he tells them as he gives them a card. Nor has the ABA given up on finding an e-reader that booksellers can sell. According to ABA Web guru Matt Supko, the organization continues to aggressively pursue a partnership.
At Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., co-owner Chuck Robinson has begun selling iPads through an agreement he worked out on his own with a local Apple dealer, who built a kiosk in his store. He described it as "a little bit like an Apple genius bar," which is open five days a week, five hours a day. On the print side, he's been pleased with the store's consignment, or scan and pay, partnership with Chelsea Green. Since it began, Robinson says that he's seen Chelsea Green sales triple. In the fall, Village Books will add another publisher's books on consignment. It is also one of several stores to begin doing its own publishing on its book machine.
Despite the urgency of making changes, there was a sense of optimism that there are still opportunities for independent booksellers to thrive.