Book buyers, like everyone else, love a bargain. But with big box stores able to offer deep discounts on the most popular titles, independent booksellers should stop worrying about competing on price and concentrate on explaining to consumers why those cheap books aren't necessarily such a great deal after all. Once book buyers recognize the hidden social and economic costs of neglecting local retailers, it may give independent bookstore owners an edge in the battle for customer loyalty.
First, let's look at Wal-Mart. After staking its reputation on low prices that undercut its competitors, the company has come under attack for its treatment of employees. The mega-retailer responded with a series of ads countering those charges earlier this year, and has followed up with a PR campaign playing up its efforts to give back to communities.
This new campaign suggests that the country's #1 retailer must feel that its low prices alone may not be enough to satisfy all of its customers. If that's the case, then it's high time that indie bookstores join with other independent businesses in our own campaign to show that we—not Wal-Mart or any other national chain—are the ones giving the most back to our communities.
Here's the story we need to tell: Far from creating more revenue in terms of local taxes and re-circulating money in their communities, big-box stores like Wal-Mart actually drain money from them. Not only are their taxes reduced by financial incentives to come to our communities, but these chains also send most of their ancillary business (such as accounting) to national and even international firms. Chains, in fact, return an average of only 13%-14% of the dollars spent in their stores to local economies, while locally owned and operated businesses, including bookstores, typically recirculate 45-58%, according to recent studies by government and grassroots organizations in Austin, Tex.; Andersonville, Ill.; Durango, Colo.; Sante Fe, New Mex.; Barnstable, Mass.; and mid-coast Maine.
The community contributions of independent storeowners don't end there. Many are integrally involved with many aspects of community life. Bookstores, as just one example, assist with school book fairs attended by millions of children; aid libraries and schools in selecting books; are active in a host of charities and civic groups; and recommend books to see their customers through divorce, death, child-bearing and rearing and vacations.
Once consumers take all of that into account, they may reconsider what they're giving up to save a few dollars off the price of a hardcover. But it's up to us, as business owners, to educate them.
There is already a blossoming movement of business owners, activists and politicians interested in preserving our communities, and in opposing the proliferation of malls and strip developments across the country. When local businesses in Salt Lake City formed an alliance called the Vest Pocket Coalition in 1999, we were the only such group we knew of outside of the Boulder Independent Business Alliance. Six years after we got our start, dozens of similar alliances—most with a bookstore owner centrally involved—have sprung up across the country, prompting the recent formation of two national organizations, BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) and AMIBA (American Independent Business Alliance).
Through their grassroots campaigns, such as "Buy Local First" and "Independents Day," in a growing number of cities, these alliances are intent on publicizing the value of independent businesses to local economies. We have influenced local elections; helped change government policy on commercial developments; formed independent business boards with a say in local projects (Salt Lake City) and reduced subsidies for chains (Austin, Tex.). If the American Booksellers Association joined with BALLE and AMIBA, we could become equally engaged on a national level, to equally good effect.
Convincing customers that it's in their best interest to shop at independent stores, even if it costs a little more in the short term, won't be easy. We all have to acknowledge that sometimes price outweighs other considerations. But the success of these grassroots efforts shows that asking consumers to consider the long-term results of their buying choices, and the health of their communities, isn't asking too much.
Betsy Burton is the author of The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller.