Like the book industry as a whole over the past 25 years, bookselling has undergone seismic changes. In 1996, chain stores, selling physical books in physical spaces, dominated adult book sales, with 25% of the market; independents and book clubs commanded 18% each. The “other” channel, including Amazon (which opened its online bookstore in 1995), had 10%. For Amazon, that translated into $15.75 million, up from $511,000 during its first year of operation. Combined sales from discount stores, food stores and drugstores, mail order, used-book stores, and warehouse clubs made up the remaining 29%, according to a Consumer Research Study.
Over the next two decades, indies saw their market share further erode due to Amazon and the Great Recession (2007–2009). After ebbing to a low of 1,401 stores with 1,651 locations in 2009, based on membership data from the American Booksellers Association—down from 5,500 bookstores with 7,000 locations in 1995—indies have slowly rebounded with new stores and established stores changing hands. Last year the ABA reported 1,701 stores with nearly 2,100 locations.
But as indies come back, Amazon continues to grow its online business. So much so that the Association of American Publishers reported that 50% of trade sales moved online in 2020 for the first time. Today indie booksellers like Gayle Shanks, co-owner and cofounder of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., once ringed by chains, has come to regard Barnes & Noble as an ally. “I don’t want Barnes & Noble to go away any longer,” she says. “It’s us and Barnes & Noble against Amazon.”
Leveling the Playing Field
When the number of indies began dropping precipitously, the ABA, headed by executive director Bernie Rath, turned to litigation. At the start of the 1994 annual ABA convention and trade show, the association filed an antitrust lawsuit alleging discrimination against small booksellers by Houghton Mifflin, Hugh Lauter Levin, Penguin USA, Rutledge Hill, and St. Martin’s. After Penguin violated the suit’s 1995 consent decree, ABA again took action and split a $25 million settlement with individual booksellers in 1997.
In 1998, ABA, under executive director Avin Mark Domnitz, changed tactics and went after the nation’s largest chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, in a suit filed in the Northern District of California. Three years later, in 2001, the parties settled, and the chains paid out $4.7 million. By then, however, Amazon had already begun making significant inroads into sales at all bricks-and-mortar stores. By year’s end Crown Books, once the country’s largest regional chain, had closed. Borders followed a decade later in 2011. In addition to B&N, of the leading chains only Books-A-Million and Half Price Books remain.
“I think the ABA litigation contributed to raising the consciousness of antitrust matters in the book business and helped lay the groundwork for the indie resurgence,” says Oren Teicher, who joined ABA as associate executive director in 1990 and served as CEO from 2009 until his retirement in 2019. “Inequalities still exist for sure, most notably these days with Amazon. In hindsight, [it] was the right thing for us to have done at the time. Having said that, times do change, and I think the more collegial and less adversarial relationship ABA developed with publishers over the past decade has also been appropriate and has worked to the advantage of indie stores.”
Certainly the independent bookselling model has had to change to meet the needs of customers in today’s digital age. Many changes have also been necessitated by the need to counteract Amazon, which most booksellers regard as the biggest challenge facing them today.
Growing Indie E-commerce
Initially, ABA competed with Amazon by focusing on what its members’ stores do best, providing carefully selected inventory and community. ABA encouraged booksellers to take the lead in Local First organizations that support small businesses, like the Boulder (Colo.) Independent Business Alliance, cofounded by Boulder Book Store owner David Bolduc in 1998, one of the first to be established. Since then, “Shop Local” has become a rallying cry for small businesses across the country.
More recently ABA has begun investing in an indie alternative to Amazon, Andy Hunter’s Bookshop.org, which enables bookstores to share in the site’s profits. It also offers an indie affiliate link option for authors, literary media, and publishers. Bookshop replaced the shopping experience on ABA’s own consumer-facing website, IndieBound .org. That in turn replaced BookSense.com, which was beta-tested in June 2000. ABA continues to invest in IndieBound.
The timing of Bookshop’s launch in January 2020, just months before the first store lockdowns to control Covid-19 outbreaks, no doubt contributed to its success, as did its ease of use on both the front and back ends. In 2021, Bookshop’s sales reached $54 million (including sales tax and shipping), and it helped stores in the U.S. earn more than $18 million in profits, according to Hunter, who cofounded Catapult Press and is publisher of Lit Hub.
Currently, there are 1,200 bookstores on Bookshop.org, about 400 of which rely solely on it for e-commerce. This year, Hunter says, the site is focusing on customer experience and adding new features for booksellers. His goal is to increase indie bookstores’ share of the e-commerce market and build consumer awareness of shopping local.
Troy Johnson, a member of the Bookshop board and president of AALBC.com, the African-American Literature Book Club, which has been selling books online since 1998, says that he is concerned that many bookstores have weak e-commerce platforms, and they should be strengthened. “I’m encouraging Andy to help bookstores get to a point where Bookshop is supporting a store’s ability to run their own sites, rather than merely post a link to Bookshop.org.”
During the pandemic, some stores have strengthened their ordering processes and begun filling more book orders directly from their stores or through Ingram’s Direct to Home program. Following the murder of George Floyd, Black-owned bookstores like Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, PW’s 2021 Bookstore of the Year, had over 1,000 orders on a single day. By the fall, Eso Won was still doing 50 to 60 online orders a day, says co-owner James Fugate.
Over the past quarter century, independents have increasingly turned to technology to strengthen their businesses. While computerized inventory systems such as Square One and WordStock (now part of IBID) were available nearly 40 years ago, using that data more effectively didn’t happen until 2002, when John Rubin founded Above the Treeline in Ann Arbor, Mich., a web-based inventory management tool for booksellers and members of the publishing community. The program grew out of his efforts to make the Book Stall in Winnetka, Ill., then owned by his mother, more efficient.
At the 2009 BookExpo convention and trade show, Rubin introduced Edelweiss, an interactive web-based platform offering publishers’ catalogues online. Edelweiss not only helped move bookstore buying from various publishers’ print catalogues to a single online location, it transformed the way reps sell. By marking up electronic catalogues in advance, they were able to shorten the time they spent selling buyers and focus more of their attention on marketing the books that stores purchased.
But inventory systems are not the only technology that inform bookstore culture. After Jeff Mayersohn and Linda Seamonson purchased Harvard Book Store in 2008, they added one of the first Espresso Book Machines, which prints between 400 and 1,000 books a month. The store also relies on Google for sharing documents and calendars; Zoom for events; Pirate Ship to generate mailing labels; and Slack to communicate among staff in real time. With the rise of social media, it has five dedicated staff members who handle social media and events, and 74,000 followers on Twitter.
Because of Covid, Harvard Book Store moved its popular warehouse sale online with Shopify. Not only is the store able to hold a virtual sale more frequently, but, Mayersohn points out, they’re larger than in-person ones where sales went through the register. A virtual warehouse sale held ahead of the 2021 holidays on two successive weekends generated nearly 3,000 orders. With a series of investments from John W. Henry, principal owner of the Boston Globe and Fenway Sports Group, late last year, the bookstore will be able to expand its technology by overhauling its website. It also plans to extend its physical reach in the Greater Boston area and beyond.
Of the many pieces of technology introduced in the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps the smartphone, released by Apple in 2007, along with Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, launched that same year, were the biggest game changers. People began using their smartphones to comparison shop and went to bookstores to find physical books they then read digitally. A headline from the Wall Street Journal captured the panic many bookstore owners felt by 2010: “Phone-Wielding Customers Strike Fear Into Retailers.” In 2011, Amazon encouraged showrooming by launching a price-check app and offering discounts to those who scanned in the prices of products at different stores.
Textbook sales at college stores were particularly hard hit. College stores found it difficult to compete with prices offered by online retailers like Chegg and Amazon. In spring 2015, Amazon decided to capture an even larger share of that market through lease arrangements to run several college stores, beginning with two at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. The online giant soon gave up on running physical campus stores, with their tight margins and seasonal sales, and exited that business two years later.
As measured in dollars and memberships, the National Association of College Stores’ best years were 2001–2003, according to CEO Ed Schlichenmayer. But he regards the period from 2014 to the present as NACS’s height in terms of innovation. “During this time college stores overcame the advent of online retailers selling textbooks and ultimately retained significant market share of course materials sales,” he says. He credits stores with adapting to the growth of digital content and addressing school affordability initiatives. “Stores played an integral role in managing publisher relationships on new programs, such as inclusive access, fee-based access to course materials,” he adds. “Even now, this inclusive access model continues to evolve based on the efforts and leadership of college stores.”
Changing Times and Business Practices
It’s not just college stores that have been forced to change. Independents continue to innovate and pivot to meet the needs of their customers, especially during the Covid pandemic. “We survived big box retail, digital downloads, and e-readers, and we’re going to survive [Covid],” says Kathy Doyle Thomas, executive v-p of 50-year-old Half Price Books in Dallas, the country’s largest independent chain, with 124 stores in 19 states. At the beginning of the pandemic, Half Price furloughed close to 80% of its 3,000 employees, halted advertising, and stopped paying rent. “Even though we have no debt,” Doyle says, “we only have so much cash.” Half Price also began offering curbside pickup in 2020 for the first time. Since then, Half Price has brought back most of its staff, upgraded its website’s back end, and made changes to its POS system, which all helped bring sales back up, without borrowing money.
The Covid-related shipping crisis forced Arsen Kashkashian, co-general manager and inventory manager for Boulder Book Store, to buy differently and up last year’s holiday orders from 40 to 200 copies for big books like Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. Kashkashian prioritized new books and was forced to squirrel away overstock behind book cases. “New books were 65% of our sales in 2019,” Kashkashian says. “[In 2021] they made up 75% of our sales.” As for sales overall, they were also up last year, 15%–20% over 2019. New book sales benefited from Boulder offering customers the opportunity to place prepaid advance orders. “All special orders are in effect [prepaid] preorders,” Kashkashian says. “Every Tuesday, when new books come in, we have anywhere from 25 to 75 books that are already sold.”
Long before Covid, indies especially were known for being nimble. “As a shop we try to stay agile and innovative,” says Roxanne Coady, founder of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn. “You can never coast in any business. It’s always changing.” Though she’s learned that sometimes it’s best to be a fast follower, in 2009 she launched the first personalized book subscription service, Just the Right Book. Coady blames undercapitalization with keeping it from reaching its full potential. “We invested hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she says. “Looking back, we should have invested millions.” To rectify that, she has made significant financial investments this year and last. Coady has also found back-end efficiencies to help her physical store by managing two nearby bookstores: BookHampton in East Hampton, N.Y., and Wesleyan University bookstore in Middletown, Conn.
Hudson offers independent booksellers a way to help their businesses take off at airports without a large investment. Upcoming partnerships include a second Parnassus Books at Nashville International Airport in 2023 and a new Green Apple Books at San Francisco International Airport in 2024. “We are also opening Ink stores that have local indie features in several major markets,” says Sara Hinckley, senior v-p for books. Other projects in development include offering local stores space within Hudson’s bookstores to feature staff picks and local bestsellers. “[It] allows us to include new and emerging brands in addition to more of the [nationally known] bookstores that we have been fortunate enough to represent,” says Hinckley. “Plus, it will broadly showcase the overall literary community.”
Praveen Madan, CEO of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., tapped into today’s bookselling zeitgeist when he convened a two-day virtual gathering last October on “Reimagining Bookstores,” which drew 600 attendees, with a follow-up planned for this spring. In his opening remarks, Madan said, “We believe it’s time to embrace bookstores as a social cause. They are good for the community.” For him that means embracing alternative bookstore models like nonprofits, hybrids, and cooperatives in order to “deepen literacy, strengthen our communities, and pay decent living wages.”
At Kepler’s, Madan created a nonprofit arm for store events and school and community programs following the launch of Kepler’s 2020 project shortly after he took over the store from founder Roy Kepler’s son, Clark Kepler, in 2012. Ten years later, he is looking ahead with a reenvisioning process, Kepler’s 2030. “Today, if you’re an owner,” says Madan, “you feel it’s all on you. Whereas I think it’s a better, richer experience if the community thinks of the bookstore serving as a social cause.” Thus, the community will contribute to the store’s financial needs, play a role in governing the store, and even provide volunteers.
Mitchell Kaplan, founder of Books & Books in Miami, is also looking to reposition his store during its 40th anniversary year. “Books & Books and probably a lot of other independents are basically literary arts organizations that are funding ourselves through the sale of books,” he says. But those sales only stretch so far. Like Madan, Kaplan would like to create a nonprofit literary foundation that would not only support store events and author programs in schools, but could also help train booksellers in underserved parts of Florida. In addition, he sees the foundation as a way to help draw people of color and people from diverse communities into publishing by gaining a background in the book business at the store.
BookBar founder Nicole Sullivan, in Denver, has taken a slightly different approach. Last November, when she purchased the Bookies children’s bookstore, she also signed papers to become a public benefit corporation, a legal term that allows her to let the community know that BookBar is a corporation that exists for the benefit of the community. Since opening BookBar in 2013, Sullivan has prioritized book donations through its BookGive program. In 2019, she purchased a vintage gas station nearby to house BookGive, which received its 501(c)3 the following year. Since March 2020 BookGive has donated more than 81,000 books. Some were used to fill Little Free Libraries, others went to more than 80 organizations serving community centers, homeless shelters, prisons, schools, and senior living centers. Now, as a PBC, BookBar’s mission is to donate 10% of its profits to BookGive.
With new stores opening and new booksellers drawn to the business, Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, launched a five-module educational program at the 2020 Winter Institute in Baltimore so that booksellers can qualify to become certified professional booksellers. In addition to completing a module for which booksellers receive certificates, they will have to complete a combination of test questions and project submission. The first booksellers will be able to add CPB to their names sometime next year. Besides NAIBA, the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association has invested in the program; other regionals are providing scholarships to cover course fees. Dengler incorporated Professional Booksellers School as a nonprofit and will serve as president.
Will education and technological opportunities be enough for indies to make it through the next 25 years? Books & Books’ Kaplan is perhaps the most enthusiastic. “Even though indie bookselling will change and retail will change, I think what we’ve understood, with all the shocks to the literary system, that it has never been stronger. Books are not going away. People wanting stories is not going away. The distribution of all that is changing and that’s what we all have to solve and understand. But the importance of what we do as purveyors of literary culture, that’s not going to change.”