Independent bookstores start a new chapter: Growth

Their numbers are up, along with their sales, as e-book novelty wears off and human interaction becomes a top priority.

By Jason Notte Aug 27, 2013 7:13AM
Teenage boy behind a stack of books (© Jupiterimages, Brand X Pictures, Getty Images)You know that person at work who keeps eying your book in the break room and saying you'd be better off with an e-reader and the latest young-adult-fiction-turned-movie of the moment? He or she is actually making it easier for you to find a bookstore you love and engross yourself in a title that blocks out such prattling.

Contrary to what the sorry state of chain bookstores and the growth of Amazon (AMZN) would lead you to believe, The Economist says independent bookstores are not only growing but thriving. The American Booksellers Association notes that since 2009 more independent bookshops have opened than closed in America.

Sales at those stores grew by 8% in 2012, when many book chains saw a drop in revenue. Barnes & Noble's (BKS) same-store sales (sales at stores open for at least a year) decreased by 3.4% last year. Borders didn't even make it to 2012 after going bankrupt and creating blank spots in malls everywhere in 2011.

So what's the key to the little guys' recent success? Becoming blockbuster-proof.

Big chains and e-books ride the ebb and flow of top-selling titles such as the "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" series, with their fortunes mirroring the sale of those particular titles. As a result, three years ago, Amazon announced that its sales of digital books had eclipsed those of hardcovers. As the public's appetite for "Hunger Games" titles waned and the novelty of e-books wore off, the Association of American Publishers claims e-book sales increased by only 5% in this year's first quarter, compared with 28% during the same period a year earlier and 159% in first-quarter 2011.

Now Nielsen reports that e-book sales fell by 0.1% in April, compared with the same period last year. That's the first decline in the e-book market, and as Nicholas Carr suggested on his Rough Type blog, the number of people willing to try e-readers may be in decline while those using tablets as e-readers may be finding themselves distracted by their little device's myriad other functions.

Robert Rosenberger at Slate suggests that those distractions, coupled with readers' reluctance to jump to newer, more expensive mediums, may limit the e-book to a 25% share of the overall market. E-readers may be the "book" that passengers take with them on the plane or other long trips that require a bit more efficiency and less weight, but people prone to procrastination when Candy Crush is just an app away are turning back to paper to avoid distractions.

That's great news for indie bookstores, which survived both the chains and e-books by cultivating a stock of eclectic, curated titles and filling shops with knowledgeable booksellers and not just any person who fits the vest. By remembering that a human being is turning each page, the indies have retained the ability to concentrate on personal interests and aesthetic, hands-on experiences.

In other words, they know what their customers might also like, because they know what their customers like -- and not just what the algorithm suggests.

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Aug 27, 2013 8:43AM
This is good news.  I'd like to think there's always a market for paper books. 
Aug 27, 2013 9:25AM
Great.  I tried an e reader, just didn't feel right.  Back to paperbacks since.  Just something about handling an actual book.
Aug 27, 2013 10:37AM
Not into ereaders at all. Love the feel and smell of a book; something intimate and organic about it. Especially used books and the passing of books from one reader to another. Ereaders could never do that. Of course, one must also weigh the destruction of trees to make paper, the toxic inks, blah, blah, blah.
Aug 28, 2013 5:09AM
Much prefer a paper book to read. They are softer to hold in bed and the paper fragrance is nice. E-Readers are hard, cold, unbend-able and they hurt your eyes more. I hope they never stop printing books. I have one dated 1922. Its a treasure. I don't see e-readers becoming classic books except for old used junk.
Aug 27, 2013 5:29PM
I am glad book stores are coming back.  I have a Kindle and like it, but I love books and have a house full of them.  And while Amazon is convient, and an e reader necessary for travel, you can't browse.  Some of my favorite books were found because I was walking through the store and the title or picture or catagory caught my attention.
Aug 27, 2013 3:17PM

eReaders are not the devil as paper book readers would have you believe. The biggest perk for me? I can read them sans glasses and contacts. It takes just a second for me to adjust the font size. I'm betting that as the current population ages eReaders will become more popular as their sight diminishes.

Aug 28, 2013 11:08AM
Hopefully this is a trend that will continue.  I do not object to people who want to stick their face into a computer screen to get their so-called dose of daily social life, but  the printed word on paper is a far better alternative.  I want to get comfortable, flip through pages, review back pages, make notes while I have the paper or book in front of me......not flipping through computer screens. I was really dismayed to see Border's go out of business, and we may see Barnes & Noble following the same end. Newspapers are also going out of business which has been America's great avenue of information.  Give me my newspaper and a cup of coffee and I am a happy camper.  Keep the paper book print coming.
Aug 27, 2013 5:49PM
Nothing is better than turning the pages of a book.  STRAND'S in NYC rules!!!
Aug 27, 2013 2:08PM
I'm in my 50s and when e-readers came out I said they would never make it. I guess I was half right. My wife has an original Kindle and Kindle Fire. I have a Nook (I never use anymore) and a cheap tablet with 3 different e-reader apps. I love my e-reader capability and wouldn't trade it for anything. My wife and I have basically the same reading habits. She will buy several books and then read each one, in order, until she's finished. She moves back and forth between physical and virtual editions in the process.  I like to think of myself as a "casual" reader. I'll start a book and then put it down after a while and repeat the process until I have 3 or 4 titles that I'm reading simultaneously. That's usually when I finish the first one I started in the group. I use my tablet/e-reader mostly for "transient" content. I read newspapers, magazines, blogs and  for the times when I want to take those 3 or 4 books I'm reading on the road or in the air. Otherwise, I default to physical books, preferably hard cover, especially if I find a title I think I might want to keep in the library. I have bought and actual book or two after I liked the electronic version, just to keep for re-reading in the future. I really like it when you can buy the hardcover book and they give you the e-version. That's the best deal going.
Aug 27, 2013 6:21PM
I can only hope they show up in the smaller cities, and towns. I live in a city with three colleges, and it can barely keep one mall open, do you really think it will support a book seller that is not totally mainstream and keyed to the instant trends of the students?
Aug 27, 2013 10:54AM

Books are for suckers.  Too much clutter, hard to carry.


That said, like newspapers and landlines, some people will never transition over to e-books.  Those people were left with a void as Borders went out of business.  Independents are filling this void.

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