A revival of the independent bookstore sector has been taking place over the past few years. That resurgence can been seen in the Pacific Northwest, which even before the indie rebound was already a veritable bookstore mecca.
The quirks of the region’s readers and reading habits can be seen by looking at different bestsellers lists. Brian Juenemann, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, says that a comparison of the national indie bestseller list from the ABA with PNBA’s own list points to these regional quirks: “This week nine of the 10 books on our mass market are not on the national indie bestseller list. Like Dune. It’s perpetually on ours, right next to 1984. We’re the Dune people. We’re a little bit weird. If you share something off-kilter with us, we’re not likely to be weirded out; we’re more likely to say, ‘tell me more.’ ”
You can’t talk about the PNW bookselling scene without talking about indie chain Powell’s Books. One of the most iconic bookstores in America, Powell’s, founded in 1971, continues to be a champion of indie bookselling. CEO Miriam Sontz has worked for Powell’s for 32 years. When she started, Powell’s was one store with 45 employees; now Powell’s has around 500 employees at six locations.
Its flagship store—dubbed Powell’s City of Books—claims to be the largest used-and-new bookstore in the world, stocked with a million books and taking up an entire city block. The store’s mix is constantly changing and being revitalized. One thing that makes Powell’s unique, Sontz says, is that it started off from a “used-book perspective.” She explains, “We’ve always valued the content of a book regardless of its imprint or origin. It doesn’t matter if it’s used, remainder, or new when determining if it’s a good book. We treat all those titles with the same respect. I think that’s different. That’s very different from most used bookstores and certainly different from a lot of new bookstores.”
Using feedback from its database, the chain shifts its focus and resources to what’s trending or what’s going to move for them. “In 1990 we got our first computerized system, so every book we receive is in our system, and we have pretty good database analysis to help us better understand which sections are growing,” Sontz says. But she is quick to add that there’s another factor to Powell’s success: bookselling intuition. “I don’t want to underestimate this, but there’s always just a combination of what you know and what you think will happen,” Sontz says. “It’s part data analysis and part putting your finger out in the breeze and seeing which way it’s blowing.” She believes that this unquantifiable element is one of the key reasons why indies have remained vital in the industry.
Powell’s also got a head start selling online, starting early in 1993. Sometimes seen by consumers as an alternative to Amazon, Powell’s is “the online version of shop local,” Sontz says. “More and more people are thinking about how they spend their dollars.” However, Sontz adds that online sales for Powell’s have been pretty stagnant over the last five years.
“I feel like I’m living in heaven,” Sontz says regarding the Pacific Northwest. “It’s a cornucopia. It’s so bountiful and it’s just getting better and better.”
Portland is also home to many smaller indies, including two children’s specialty stores: A Children’s Place Bookstore and Green Bean Books. Located in the Alberta Arts District, Green Bean Books opened in 2009. “We opened in the middle of the recession,” owner Jennifer Green says, “and everyone said don’t do it.” Yet she reports that since opening the store has seen consistent sales growth.
Portland ranks second to last among America’s most populous cities in households with children, but Green’s neighborhood has seen an influx of “younger couples moving in and having kids,” Green says. “This neighborhood is chock-full of kids five and younger.”
Despite more young people, the store has had a hard time getting its YA section to take off. Green says that it’s a matter of waiting for the kids in the neighborhood to be old enough.
The store has 15% of its mix devoted to sidelines, Green says, including six repurposed vending machines that dispense things such as finger puppets and mustaches, creating an interactive experience for kids.
Green holds that element—creating experience—to be her store’s mission. “Our calendar is full of events, and we’re a community meeting place, which is great,” Green says. “We’re trying to get people to come here every day. We’re creating not just a bookstore, but an experience. That’s our whole goal. It’s all about community.”
Lots of Variety in Washington
Seattle’s Third Place Books has three locations: Lake Forest Park, Ravenna, and its newest location, Seward Park. The Lake Forest Park store is 18 years old and has 15,000 sq. ft. of bookstore with a café, a stage, a community room, and a common area, all located in a northern suburb of Seattle.
Managing partner Robert Sindelar says that the idea for the Lake Forest Park bookstore was based on the concept of a “third place.” He explains, “It’s a gathering place, not your home, not your work, but that third place in your life. ”
This original location has a mix of new and used books and large seating areas where groups can meet. Since the development of the initial concept, however, consumer preferences have changed. Sindelar contextualizes the development of the original store, saying, “This was when it seemed like Barnes & Noble and Borders were going to take over the world. There were threats from Walmart and Costco, and there were threats from Amazon that didn’t seem nearly as threatening then as they do today. But all of those factors were in play.”
At that time, Third Place Books was unique enough that the store, which has to be driven to, drew people from a wide geographic area—a strategy that Sindelar says worked very well up through 2008. “Then the economy falls apart, gas prices almost double, this store is a store people drive to,” he notes. “Very few people can walk to it. And e-books launched right around that time as well. That combination of factors made a lot of indie bookstores take a hit, but it definitely took a hit to this kind of model, this indie suburban superstore.”
As a result, the company’s two most recent stores, the ones in Seattle’s Ravenna and Seward Park neighborhoods, are about 3,000 sq. ft. Third Place opened the Seward Park location in June of this year, because it noticed growing density in the southern part of Seattle (Seward Park is in southeast Seattle) as housing prices elsewhere in the city have been rising dramatically.
Another Washington independent with multiple locations is Village Books, which has a store in Bellingham and one in Lynden; both focus on community. In fact, “Building community one book at a time” is the store’s tagline. “And it’s not just a tagline,” explains general manager Paul Hanson. “The selling of books helps to facilitate that mission [of building community]. It drives all of our business decisions.”
The store has roughly 350 author events annually, in addition to which it hosts other events, without authors, that are based around community building. Village Books also has a strong partnership with the local library system.
Village Books was one of the first stores to get an Espresso Book Machine, and while that machine is now gone, it helped Village Books to build its in-store publishing program. The store has its own imprint, Chuckanut Editions, which focuses on local books. Chuckanut publishes the Chuckanut Reader, a quarterly magazine that Village Books sends out to its customers, and Chuckanut is publishing its first full-color photography book, Nooksack Wanderings by Bob Kandiko, this Christmas.
Suzanne Droppert took over Shotwell’s Bookstore in Poulsbo, Wash., in 1996. She changed the name to Liberty Bay Books, moved it across the street, and quadrupled the inventory. Then, in 2015, she opened a satellite store a half-hour away in Bremerton. People in Bremerton, a military town with a shipyard and submarine base nearby, asked for a bookstore, Droppert says. She says that, while Liberty Bay’s Bremerton store is doing well, “it’d be nice if we did a whole lot better.” People in Bremerton are out of the habit of going downtown to shop, Droppert explains, because of the many shuttered storefronts in the downtown’s recent history. “My goal is to change people’s habits of shopping,” Droppert says. “Everybody is used to clicking, and to come downtown, well, it’s a struggle.”
Despite the challenges, last year was Liberty Bay’s “best year ever, which was bizarre,” Droppert says. “That’s even taking out the Bremerton store. I really think that that is due to the publishers giving us authors, bringing them to our schools and communities. Being a small store, we really appreciate that. That’s how we are making up in sales.”
Phil Bevis of Arundel Books in Seattle says that he is impressed with the new wave of bookstore owners. “They have real business plans and real experience in other fields to draw on. They’ve lined their ducks up. I’m really gratified to see the general level of confidence and excitement in existing businesses and the quality of people opening new stores.”
One example of the new wave of bookstore owners is Danielle Hulton of Ada’s Technical Books and Café in the Capitol Hill district of Seattle. Danielle opened Ada’s in 2010 with her husband David Hulton. Danielle was a computer engineer for four years until she realized that she wanted a career change that would allow her to stay involved in the industry. Her idea? To open a bookstore that had a focus on making STEM available to the general population.
The original iteration of the store didn’t include a cafe, but Danielle realized “pretty quickly that being exclusively a bookstore was not a sustainable business model.” Luckily, a space became available in the same neighborhood, and, with the help of an architect, Danielle and David opened a new, design-driven version of Ada’s that includes a cafe in November 2013. The new store not only has the cafe, but also a kids’ section and a coworking space available for rent. The store’s sales are split roughly down the middle between the cafe and the store.
Tom Nissley, owner of Seattle’s Phinney Books, worked on the books team at Amazon from 2000–2011. But after winning money on Jeopardy!, he decided to “escape the golden handcuffs” of his job—not to open a bookstore, however, but to write books. His first book, A Reader’s Book of Days, came out from Norton in 2013, but writing wasn’t enough to sustain Nissley financially. That’s when his neighborhood bookstore came up for sale. The more he looked into the idea of opening a bookstore, the more he thought it was a good time to get into the business.
That was in June 2014. Since then, Nissley has developed a bookstore that, at only 1,200 square feet, thrives on its carefully chosen selection and its ability to connect with its community.
Nissley puts a lot of care into his weekly newsletter and into Phinney’s unique subscription book service, Phinney by Post. What distinguishes Phinney’s subscription book service from other similar services is that Phinney chooses backlist titles. “I choose an obscure or underappreciated backlist title that I think people don’t know, but that I love,” Nissley says.
Even though Nissley is new to the business, the store “is up again this year,” he says. “It’s gone kind of as we’d hoped so far. It’s been fun to see how a small store works, and what the value of it is and how much people appreciate it.”
A Tough Go in Vancouver
The soaring rents in Vancouver have left the city with no indie bookstore downtown. Even Indigo closed its superstore in favor of a smaller format, Indigospirit Outlet.
“Vancouver is not a great place now for bookstores,” Ronald Hatch of Ronsdale Press says. “We used to have some really splendid bookstores here, but now we have maybe three or four for a population of a million.”
The change in Vancouver’s bookstore environment has changed Hatch’s business. “The big change over the last 15–20 years for us is we’ve lost a lot of our habitat,” he says. “The ecology of bookselling has really changed and driven out most of the kinds of booksellers that sustained the kind of publishing that we do and that other smaller and regionally based presses count on. That has been a huge factor, bigger than Amazon, I think, in shaping our work. It’s much harder to put books in front of people’s noses.”
However, Mary-Ann Yazedjian, president of the B.C. Booksellers Association and manager of Book Warehouse (a division of Black Bond Books) in Vancouver, sees reasons for optimism. When Book Warehouse’s former owner Sharman King wanted to retire five years ago, he put his chain of indie stores up for sale. “When his leases were up, if he couldn’t sell, he let his stores close one by one,” Yazedjian says. He got down to his last store—the flagship store on Broadway. Cathy Jesson, the owner of Black Bond Books, an indie chain with 10 locations in the suburbs, bought that last remaining location, just to keep Book Warehouse alive in Vancouver. That was five years ago, and since then Book Warehouse on Broadway has done so well that two and a half years ago Jesson opened a second Vancouver location.
There are no bookstores in downtown proper, however, aside from used ones, because of the prohibitive rents. “There are so many empty storefronts, it’s ridiculous,” Yazedjian says. “There doesn’t seem to be any sense of landlords wanting to work with local indie businesses to make it affordable.”
Even though rents are high, so far Yazedjian says that Book Warehouse hasn’t had problems with staffing and that sales are up across the board for both of Book Warehouse’s stores.“It was doom and gloom about eight to 10 years ago when Amazon got really big and popular and started devaluing books like they do,” Yazedjian says. “That has plateaued.”
Area booksellers have gotten together to more actively promote local bookselling. Yazedjian also credits Authors for Indies, Canada’s version of the States’ Indies First campaign, for helping to create awareness around supporting indie bookstores.
It’s a different bookselling story in Victoria. Munro’s Books, started by Jim Munro and his first wife, Alice Munro (yes, that one), in 1963, remains a destination. It is now located in a heritage bank building and is often named one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Jessica Walker, managing partner at Munro’s, says that, despite the fact that Jim Munro has retired, passing the store on to four longtime employees, he still owns the building, which allows Munro’s Books to weather economic pressures.
Victoria has a number of big independent bookstores that benefit from being on the cruise-ship circuit. Walker says that summers at the store are very busy with people heading up to Alaska on cruise ships. “In part we’re blessed with not only a really strong home community of readers and writers, but the additional bonus of a lot of tourists.”
Business at Munro’s has been “steadily climbing back from the dark days of 2009,” Walker says. “We had a really good summer this year. In part because of the shift in the U.S. dollar in the last year or so.”
For Munro’s, the blessing of their location also has its drawbacks, mainly that shipping is slow. “We have to think pretty strategically at Christmastime because we don’t get books in two days. Most of the time we get them in two weeks, so the time frame for responding to demand is longer.”
Bumps in the Road
Even though the PNW region is booming, area bookstores face challenges. The influx of tech companies has not only driven up the rent and changed the character of the region’s downtowns, it has also helped to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books says that figuring out how to provide a livable wage in Seattle is a challenge. He wonders how he can ensure that his staff can afford to live near the stores.
Another challenge facing stores is the cultural one of consumer habit. According to a recent report, nearly half of U.S. households have an Amazon Prime membership. That news is making some booksellers uneasy about the future of shopping.
It’s what Sindelar calls “Prime culture.” He’s amazed by how quickly society has adopted using Prime as part of everyday life: “There’s a segment of our population for whom Prime has become as integrated into their lives as googling something. To suggest not using Prime is to suggest that when you launch your browser you don’t use Google. If you’re in the bookstore business that’s scary.”
Sindelar struggles with how to educate his customers about the disconnect of the person who actively says, “I love your bookstore,” but “who spend his or her book-buying dollars elsewhere.” He says that customers, even regulars, come into the store and, if he’s out of the book that they need, they buy it online. “To them there’s no disconnect there. They don’t think they are being a bad customer. They feel like they are supporting me,” Sindelar says. He notices that customers are willing to spend money on things that stores have in stock on that day. Otherwise, they’re going online.
Operating in Amazon’s Shadow
Amazon may loom physically near to Seattle booksellers, but it can’t offer what the indies do: a unique bookstore experience. “Experience is the key,” Phil Bevis of Arundel Books says. He adds that chains are the same in all towns, whereas indies are unique. “You can get a book anywhere. So why go into an indie store?” Bevis asks. “The answer is because it’s going to be different. That is the real reason for the upswing in the indie market right now.”
“To be completely cliché, there is kind of the belief that, if you build it, they will come,” Sindelar says. “If you do it right that is. I’m a huge believer that there is a thirst for and continues to be a thirst for what we provide, but you have to put it close enough to people.”
Some booksellers believe that there is room for online book shopping and bricks-and-mortar booksellers to exist side by side. “Amazon can’t ever replicate” the experience that Ada’s Technical Books and Café provides, Danielle Hulton says. “I think a lot of our regular customers buy from both Amazon and us and I’m okay with that. I also think a lot of our customers work at Amazon, and our store speaks to those technically minded people. It’s actually great.”
Additionally, Amazon’s much publicized decision to open bricks-and-mortar stores doesn’t have indies sweating too much. Miriam Sontz of Powell’s finds it to be a form of flattery: “It’s an acknowledgement that there’s something that goes on specifically with bookstores that’s not reproducible online.”
She points out that for people who live in neighborhoods where indie bookstores don’t exist, readers have little choice but to use Amazon.”I think the leverage that Amazon has is that there are many communities that do not have that kind of alternative,” Sontz says. When you don’t know what you’re looking for, shopping online can be “extremely frustrating,” she adds. “Various engines have tried to tell you what you might like, and those have all been abject failures. There’s nothing like talking to a human being about the book you should read. I think that has value. I think that value is being more and more understood, just as the number of e-books selling has declined.”
Tom Nissley of Phinney Books says that he, too, takes Amazon’s decision to open bricks-and-mortar stores as a form of tribute, though he realizes that it definitely could threaten existing indie bookstores to have that kind of competition. As a former Amazon employee, he has something of an insider view. “When I left Amazon they really thought that the physical book was going to be dead in five years,” Nissley says. “I think they are doing it for branding reasons and to get people into Prime and to sell devices—they aren’t really bookstores.” Nissley further notes that by making books the center of attention of the stores, at least for now, Amazon is acknowledging “that physical books aren’t going away.”
Sindelar adds, “Years and years ago it was just shaking your fist at Amazon or B&N or whoever deserved some fist-shaking at the time. About seven years ago or so we made a conscious decision as a company to say we cannot define ourselves in their shadow. Either what we do is unique and has purpose and people are willing to pay for it—or what we do doesn’t serve our communities and we’ll have to close.”
Nissley agrees. “As an ex-Amazon person coming into this business, the main thing I took away from that is that I don’t have to compete with Amazon. I’m doing something really different. Six or seven years ago it was a different story, but I think my customers are very conscious of why they are coming into my store. They are not expecting what they get from Amazon. I don’t worry about competing with them. I just offer something so different.”