Most independent bookstores are weathering difficult economic times and are in a much better position than in previous downturns, according to anecdotal evidence from the executive directors of many regional booksellers associations.

While some stores had solid Christmas seasons, most saw sales drop. But as Lisa Knudsen of Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association observed: "People were braced.... All the booksellers I know were careful with their ordering and trying for just-in-time for the holidays." She added that there has been "real belt-tightening" in the region. "Before stores might have had five employees and now they have three. People who leave aren't being replaced." She said the scaling back has worked: she does not know of any store closings recently in the MPBA area.

Larger stores in the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association area are "in a mindset of holding their own," executive director Thom Chambliss said. On the other hand, he added, "Many of the smaller stores seem to be doing better. They seem to have had a little more success gaining new customers and gaining market share."

Rusty Drugan of the New England Booksellers Association said many NEBA stores have had sales in the past few months that "weren't great, but they're hunkering down and moving ahead. They're concentrating on doing a better job with business."

In the Southeast Booksellers Association area, one positive sign, according to Wanda Jewell, is that "a lot of stores for sale have sold." She also singled out North Carolina as a "very vibrant book place": several stores have sold there and others have opened.

In the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association territory, "there are success stories in spite of the lousy economy," Susan Walker said. "But that doesn't mean we're not worried." Most stores are "holding on, conscientious about business and working every angle, but some are hurting because of the economy in their area. Hopefully it won't be lousy for too long; otherwise some will not be able to hang on."

Many Northern California Independent Booksellers Association stores report sales down 3% or 5% but say "they can handle that for a while," Hut Landon said. Five years ago, he continued, "if we'd had this same Christmas I would have heard that they were going out of business or on credit hold.... Nobody feels panicked, unless they had a Borders open across the street from them in the fall."

Other regional directors said that most of their stores—excluding those with superstores that have opened nearby—have largely put behind the fear they felt in the '90s facing severe competition from the big chains and online retailers.

Overall PNBA stores aren't "actively complaining about competition," Chambliss said. "It's just a fact of life."

NEBA's Drugan added, "It's been true for some time that most stores have moved beyond superstores and Amazon."

Walker at UMBA said that stores near chains "have figured out what to do to maintain a niche and deal with their customers."

Landon stressed that "no one is saying business is down because of competition. Everyone is down. We can wait out the economy. We are in a better position financially and competitively."

After significant drops in the late 1990s, membership at most of the associations has leveled off and, in some cases, even risen. At NEBA, for example, membership "took a hit" several years ago, Drugan said, but is now stable. "I'm quite pleased," he commented.

Some 17 newly opened independent stores joined UMBA in 2002, a number Walker called "rather impressive." Some of these new stores are thriving: Beagle Books, Park Rapids, Minn., was just named the favorite bookstore of the year in Minnesota Monthly, the magazine published by Minnesota Public Radio. Most of these new stores are in smaller communities. "They don't open in large cities or metro areas unless they're specialized," Walker added.

Several executive directors mentioned the importance of educational seminars. Lisa Knudsen noted that MPBA is emphasizing "financial management and offering some real nuts-and-bolts seminars." For some time, PNBA has been encouraging stores to "do whatever they can to get people's attention: readings, newsletters, Web sites," Chambliss said. One member has suggested an educational session that will help stores get school and corporate accounts that have fled to the Internet.

For its part, SEBA has had positive reaction to its "revival" meetings, a kind of educational road show for booksellers that is designed to draw booksellers within a two-hour drive from the host store. "Everyone is ready to recommit," Jewell commented.

Many PNBA members "attributed their success" to regional association holiday catalogues, Chambliss said. In a change from previous years, PNBA edited and assembled its catalogue in-house. Changes in the catalogue helped member stores "extend their reach"—an important thing to do in these times, he continued.

NCIBA's Landon said that Book Sense has made "a huge difference in marketing, and the technological resources are better."

One thing making it more difficult for some PNBA booksellers to survive difficult times is that they are having "less and less communication with publishers and their sales reps," Chambliss said. "We're getting less and less attention." Several publishers have cut back on representation. "They just don't think we're a large part of the market, so it's our job to convince them that we are. We're hoping we can give them good numbers." The only positive side of this situation, Chambliss went on, is that "authors themselves are more eager than they ever have been because they don't get support from publishers."