Independent bookstores find favor in face of large chains

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Dolly's Bookstore is located on Main Street Park City and is proud to be a part of Utah's independent bookstore community. (Corey Tyndall)
Dolly’s Bookstore is located on Main Street Park City and is proud to be a part of Utah’s independent bookstore community. (Corey Tyndall)

Independent bookstores may seem like a thing of the past, but according to Andrew Sims, shopping at them makes someone “a contributing member of society.”

The co-founder and editor-in-chief of a successful pop-culture news site known as Hypable, Sims recently urged his large base of readers to order J.K. Rowling’s highly anticipated new book through an independent bookstore rather than a chain store. The article, which supports independent bookstores, has been liked and shared on various platforms nearly 1,000 times since being posted in early June 2014.

Sims is not alone in “plugging” independent bookstores in his pieces and is glad to see that more journalists are taking actions similar to his.

“By default, readers just go to, in most cases, Barnes & Noble or Amazon because they have it in their head that that’s the place to go,” Sims said. “They need mainstream voices like Hypable, authors and endless other sites to be reminded that they can shop at local bookstores that they may not even know exist.”

A recent increase in publisher, author and media support has led to a resurgence in popularity of what once was seen as an outdated and dying industry: independent bookstores. For the first time since 2005 the number of independent bookstores in America is increasing as more people discover the advantages these stores have to offer.

Increased support

The mass media is not the only group paying more attention to independent bookstores in recent years. Publishers and authors are increasingly catering to independent bookstores’ needs and wants.

“The ‘Indies’ have always had support from authors,” said Catherine Weller, co-owner and new-book buyer for Weller Book Works located in Salt Lake City. “A lot of the authors who are really big now, the independent channel is the channel that broke them so they feel very close to us.”

Weller explained that over the years independent bookstores have brought attention to books and authors such as John Green, bringing them into the mainstream and preventing them from remaining what she called “mid-list” authors or books forever. This relationship has caused many authors to be outspoken in favor of independent bookstores, and publishers are increasingly following suit.

The bankruptcy of Borders bookstores and the massive popularity of e-readers served as a “wake-up call for publishers,” many of whom had left independent stores neglected.

“As publishers have looked at things like what happened in the music industry … they realized they don’t want that to happen,” Weller said. “They know that having a physical place for readers to browse books is important.”

Authors and publishers have specifically been supporting and catering to independent stores by sending them signed copies of books at no additional cost and, in some cases, scheduling book tour stops exclusively at independent bookstores. It is impossible to pin the increased popularity of independent bookstores on just one or two factors, but it is clear that authors, publishers and journalists are having a positive impact.

Weller Book Works is located in Salt Lake City and prides itself on its large collection of new, used and rare books. (Corey Tyndall)
Weller Book Works is located in Salt Lake City and prides itself on its large collection of new, used and rare books. (Corey Tyndall)

Community

One of the factors that sets independent bookstores apart from chain competitors is the communities that exist around them. While there is largely a consensus that the best way to build a community around an independent bookstore is to host events, Dolly’s Bookstore, in Park City, has found other options as well.

“We have so many people who come year after year to see the cats: ‘The cats, the cats, where are the cats?’ people will say,” said Sue Fassett, manager of Dolly’s Bookstore. “The fact that the cats live in the store isn’t that unique … but to some people it is just who we are.”

Dolly’s Bookstore, located on Main Street in Park City, is home to three cats who attract audiences and help build customer loyalty. Unique features and traditions such as Dolly’s cats are part of what draws locals and tourists alike to independent shops.

Fassett explained that the main ways Dolly’s has built and maintained a strong community over the years has been through authors’ events, catering to locals and partnering with charities, especially local schools. Dolly’s has built relationships with nearby schools and offers a 10-percent discount to students who choose to buy their summer reading books from the store rather than online. Fassett said that even though it is usually less cost effective to purchase from an independent store than Amazon, the workers at Dolly’s are continually surprised by student support.

Benefits to shoppers

Kimberly Austin, a senior studying humanities with a minor in editing, “fell in love” with the personalized attention she received at independent bookstores while interning in Washington, D.C.

“What I loved is that you couldn’t go into the store with a book in mind; you had to go in and see what found you,” Austin said of her favorite bookstore, which was notoriously messy and always packed with books.

Not all independent bookstore Austin has visited were so disorganized, but she has found personalized attention given by knowledgeable booksellers to be a consistent quality that has kept her returning to stores.

Joseph Parry, a professor of comparative studies and interdisciplinary humanities, echoed Austin’s words and agreed that knowable book sellers are at the heart of independent bookstores’ appeal.

“I welcome the return of independent bookstores because I like the idea of a bookstore owned by somebody who loves books and who will hopefully provide a first level of editorial endorsement; that is, she or he will try as hard as possible to offer quality books, well-written, well-researched, important topics, et cetera,” Parry said.

Parry considers himself “an independent bookstore guy” but acknowledged that there is a trade-off. While independent bookstores can specialize and offer more personalized recommendations they cannot offer as competitive prices or as large a selection as mass sellers such as Barnes & Noble or Amazon can. In order for the book community to thrive, there must be a balance.

“A good staff at a quality bookstore who can engage their customers over books and topics that the customers might otherwise miss sounds good to me,” Parry said.

 

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