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February 18, 2014

Despite Increased Competition, Independent Bookstores Thrive in US

by Julie Taboh

For generations, Americans visited local, independently operated bookstores to buy something to read.

However, in the past two decades, these stores have faced growing competition from national chains as well as from the discounted digital titles that have become available online.

It looked as if independent bookstores would be driven out of business. However, recent industry figures show these bookshops are not only surviving, they are thriving.

Beyond books

There’s a simple reason three-year-old Oliver Kalm likes going to the bookstore with his mother. He loves to read.

“Every night before he goes to sleep, he reads at least five books,” said Patigul Kalm. “It’s his favorite thing to do.”

Oliver and his mother are among the thousands of regular customers who visit Politics & Prose, a popular independent bookstore in Northwest Washington, that has been a neighborhood fixture for 30 years.

Patrons come for the lively book discussions, to visit the coffee shop or to attend daily author readings.

Even President Barack Obama visited the store with his daughters last November to show his support for small businesses.

In recent years however, more and more Americans have turned to digital or e-books while also buying their books online and at bookstore chains. As a result, there's a perception that independent bookstores are slowly disappearing.

Rumor versus reality

That's not the case, according to Oren Teicher, head of the American Booksellers Association, which represents about 1,600 independently-owned retail bookstores across the United States.

“In 2012, we had about an 8 percent increase in total sales in our member stores," Teicher said. "We’ve held that increase in 2013 which we’re absolutely delighted about.”
Teicher said one reason independent bookstores are doing well is because owners are deeply engaged in the community.

Lissa Muscatine, who—along with husband Bradley Graham—bought Politics and Prose from its original owners a few years ago, believes independent bookstores play a vital role in their communities and are becoming even more valued over time.

“It’s what’s called a third place. It’s not home, it’s not office, but now you might also say it’s not the screen,” Muscatine said. "As people’s lives become more homogenized, more digitized, more anonymous, more impersonal, they want and crave places to go where they’re interacting with real people and I think a bookstore, especially more than almost any institution in a community, provides that."

Jeanie Kahn, who was walking around the iconic bookstore on a recent Friday afternoon with a stack of books in her arms, has been buying her books at Politics and Prose ever since it opened.

“I love reading and have become a voracious reader and would much rather buy books at an independent bookstore than at one of the mega bookstores or Amazon,” Kahn said.

Staying current

Muscatine and Graham have taken measures to keep up with the times, while maintaining the main mission of the bookstore’s original founders.

Graham said they offer a service that enables customers to download titles onto almost any kind of e-reader except a Kindle, while still providing what their customers like best.

“We’ve expanded in a number of areas,” Graham said, “including literary classes and trips; [to both domestic and destinations overseas.] We have our own book-printing machine now in the store and we’re doing more and more with author events.”

Muscatine said their bookstore is a place where customers can meet and interact with their favorite authors. Politics and Prose holds hundreds of in-store author events annually which feature best-selling as well as emerging writers. The bookshop also organizes author events at dozens of outside venues.
 
“You can’t do that clicking a button on a screen in the same way,” she said.

Graham also points out that even though a certain segment of the population has turned to e-books, interest in them has waned.

“You see a certain plateauing now in the rise of e-books and that those who have gone in that direction and are reading e-books still are buying physical books,” Graham said. “So the most avid users of e-books have remained among the most avid buyers of physical books.”

Hybrid readers

A recent survey by the Codex Group, a book market research and consulting company, finds that about 64 percent of book buyers in the United States read in both print and digital formats.

“So there is a sort of a hybrid kind of reader out there," said Graham, "and so we’re very confident that physical books are going to survive and continue to be the dominant way that people want to read.”

The owners also point out another draw for customers; knowledgeable sales staff who are well-read and familiar with the store’s inventory. They regularly help customers with everything from finding exact book titles, to helping them choose books for themselves as well as for gifts.

And at the end of the day, Muscatine said there’s another essential element that keeps customers coming back.

“I think that reading a physical book still provides a tactile experience for people that simply can’t be replicated on a screen,” she said.

Jeanie Kahn agrees.

“I like to be able to pick up the book, feel it," she said. "I’ve gotten off my e-reader because I need to feel the book.”

“It’s just something unsatisfying about holding a Kindle or holding an iPad trying to read a book," said her husband Marc. "It just doesn’t feel right.”

Whether little Oliver Kalm sticks with physical books, or grows up to read e-books, or both, right now he has a simple message for readers of all kinds:

“Keep reading books!”