"How does your store survive in the age of Amazon?”
Twenty-one years into my bookselling career, I’m finally, truly tired of the question. I don’t ask the hardware store owner how his shop is still germane. I don’t ask my burrito joint if cash flow is adequate. I don’t require my kid’s third-grade teacher to explore her relevancy in the time of MOOCs.
Not that I haven’t thought a lot about it. I’ve spent countless sessions at BEA and Winter Institute trying to make sure Green Apple Books does survive. I think about how to improve our social media outreach, how to make our website better represent our store, how to hire smart and schedule efficiently, and how to best manage cash flow. I spend hours and days listening to other indies talk about what they do well, and then I openly steal their ideas.
Not too long ago, a group of M.B.A. candidates used Green Apple as a case study, hoping to discover why we thrive when popular discourse keeps predicting our death. They spent scores of hours in our store, around our neighborhood, and in other areas talking to book buyers, our customers, and strangers, only to discover what we had already figured out: e-books and Amazon and indie bookstores can coexist in America.
I need not enumerate Amazon’s advantages, fair and unfair. And I probably also don’t have explain what the M.B.A. group articulated: indie bookstores offer community, discovery, and beauty; readers feel good about keeping their hard-earned money recirculating in their local communities; and many people value the “third place” enough to put their money where their mouths are. That’s why ABA membership has grown for five straight years. That is why we decided to open a second store this year.
By our numbers, about 500 people a day buy something at our flagship store, and we rang up nearly 5,000 transactions at the new store in its first month (and our outdoor signs aren’t even up yet). Eighty-five percent of our sales are books, not stuffed animals or candles. Thirty-five bibliophiles make a living from Green Apple (with health insurance and plenty of paid time off). We house the hard work of more than 100,000 authors from the earliest days of civilization up through the most recent bestsellers. It’s likely that we have on our shelves a book that will change or even save your life.
But numbers don’t tell the story. Within our walls are real human interaction (sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much): parents read to their kids in our store, couples meet for the first time, Robin Williams and Dave Eggers once connected over our bargain bins, Tom Waits recently told us which book about him “really sucks,” a man had a heart attack and died in our military history section, a drunk lost control of his bodily functions in poetry, every day a lost soul finds someone to talk to, and it was at Green Apple that I was set up with the woman who became my wife.
Of course, the future is uncertain. Even successful stores disappear because of personal tragedies, skyrocketing rents (especially here in San Francisco), and the vagaries of local and global economies. Innovation has made our receiving faster, our credit card processing cheaper, and our bookkeeping more efficient. But drones or no drones, we may not have the ability to keep up in an ever-changing world of technology. The challenges of fixed prices on books make it ever harder to afford, attract, and retain employees in a city that (rightly) has one of the highest minimum wages in the country and numerous other mandated benefits, from commuter checks to health insurance. Every other business in San Francisco can raise its prices accordingly, but with prices on the book jackets, we can’t.
As part of the San Francisco community, we get readers who clearly value both a unique, varied retail environment and the written word. Working at the front counter of our newly opened second bookstore near Golden Gate Park, I have had the daily joy of overhearing customers’ encouraging reactions—which is not to say that we haven’t had our fair share of “you opened a bookstore?!” head shakers. But mostly it’s “welcome to the neighborhood,” “we’re so happy you’re here,” and “fuck Amazon!”
How do we survive? We don’t. We thrive.
And in the words of a fellow indie bookseller, “It may not be a good living, but it’s a good life.”