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It’s the End for Borders, but How Are Independent Bookstores Faring?

This week, major international bookseller Borders announced it would liquidate its inventory and shutter its stores. More than 10,000 workers are expected to be laid off. Thursday on the PBS NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown talked to Annie Lowrey of Slate about the fall of that retail giant.

When Borders established itself as a major chain in the 1990s it became, along with Barnes & Noble, and later, online retailer Amazon, a main competitor of small, independent bookstores around the country. Today, if they were fortunate to outlive Borders, small stores are facing some old challenges (the recession) as well as some new challenges (e-books).

Art Beat called some notable independent booksellers across the nation to see how they are faring and adapting in the current climate, and they responded via email.

Here are excerpts from their responses:

portersquare_books.jpgPorter Square Books (left), Cambridge, Mass.
Ellen Jarrett, events manager

It is ALWAYS sad to see a bookstore close. It has an effect on the book business from top to bottom – publishers to independent retailers. One fear is that people served by Borders live in places that aren’t/can’t be served by an independent bookstore. They will be forced to go online to a place like Amazon. Not good for us. However, there is now an impetus to open more independents in these areas. We don’t believe that people are necessarily buying fewer books, at least that is not our experience. We are doing well and can now sell ebooks online to our customers through Google e-books. We are a destination and a community gathering place and consider that to be one of the most important functions we serve. It is so important to nurture the human touch!

Square Books (right), Oxford, Miss.
Lyn Roberts, General Manager

squarebooks.jpgFrom the beginning, Square Books has been a community book store. When Richard and Lisa Howorth considered in 1979 whether a town the size of Oxford, Miss. could support an independent bookstore, they knew they could count on the support of at least 10 families in the community, and so they opened on the second floor of a building on the town’s square. Almost 32 years later, Square Books has grown and now occupies three buildings on the square, but that community support remains essential. Fortunate to be in a literary town that we share with many exceptional writers, our best seller list is dominated by local writers, many of whom appear on national best seller lists as well, and books that are of interest to local residents and visitors who are interested in this area. So, while the consciousness of the impact of shopping local has become widespread, it has been the sine qua non for the continued strength of Square Books.

This is not to say that Square Books has not felt the effects of recession. Sales have not seen any significant increases over the past two years, but seem to be holding steady. We have the support of the writers in our community and those whose books we have read and promoted, the readers and citizens that appreciate what we offer, and the publishers with whom we have worked with for many years. The world of books is unarguably changing, but we also will adapt so as to continue to remain a mainstay in the community.

City Lights Books

City Lights Books, San Francisco
Elaine Katzenberger, Executive Director and Publisher

Now more than ever, we believe that what we do is crucial. We believe that intelligent discourse and unfettered questioning are the foundations for any hope for an engaged citizenry, crucial for democracy and for the health of us all. We’ve been an independent bookseller and publisher for over 55 years, and the vision that still inspires us was born in a time similar to our own — a prevailing culture of paranoia and fear — and City Lights was founded as an attempt to further a robust, informed confrontation with the realities of the time. Providing a place for people to engage with ideas — and with each other — is what bookstores, and books themselves, do. We’re committed to that mission, and to those who share it.

Like all small businesses, our capacity to continue playing a meaningful role is being challenged in many ways: most obviously by the global downturn in the economy, and by the effects that developing technologies are having on every aspect of our lives, but most powerful is the challenge of a media culture that seems intent on devaluing intelligent discourse in order to increase profits. Our hope lies in the strength of enough people’s ability to resist that numbing force, and as long as those people remain committed to a future that’s not dictated purely by profit margins, City Lights will survive, and continue to do our part.



Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C.
Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham, owners

Politics and Prose continues to thrive as an independent bookstore because we are so deeply rooted in our community — a community that appreciates the difference between an independent, socially-conscious, neighborhood institution and a national brand. Our customers want and demand civic engagement and set a high intellectual bar. We offer them an experience they simply cannot get on-line or at big box stores and chains. Our booksellers are expert curators who understand the tastes and interests of our customers. We host 500 events in the store each year with leading (and emerging) authors. We offer courses and classes, organize and lead book clubs, and are a gathering place for readers, writers, thinkers, and citizens who want to be involved in serious discourse about the ideas and issues of the day. Moreover, we partner with local schools, universities, cultural institutions and other organizations in ways that build and strengthen our community. We contribute to our community by paying local taxes, unlike some of the on-line retailing giants. In short, we are genuinely part of our community, and that is a key to our success.


Unabridged Books

Unabridged Books, Chicago
Stefan Moorehead, Buyer

The definition of thriving hasn’t changed for physical independent bookstores over the years. We aren’t trying to appease stock holders or increase our market share every quarter, we’re trying to be the best bookstore we can be for our community and the people that support us by reading and loving books. We love to tell the story that the same week that Border’s was closing down the street, we were putting in new carpet. We love books, are committed to their future, and committed to our future in our city.

Surviving has always been a tightrope walk. Our store has survived a dozen competitors over our 30 years within a half mile of the store, so we offer value to our customers. Value in price: we carry a large remainder section of not quite brand new hardcovers all under $10; value in our stock: tens of thousands of books are published every year. We only have space for a small percentage of that. We carry what we’ve found to be the best of the best. And our recommendations aren’t based on an Internet algorithm. We’ve actually read our recommended books. And any two people want two different things. Why should they be pigeon-holed into buying whatever the steepest discount is? Sure, people want to read “The Help,” but where do you go after that? We know the answer by listening to our customers and the community, and that will never change.

Prairie Lights

Prairie Lights, Iowa City, Ia.
Jan Weissmiller, Co-Owner

Prairie Lights is lucky to be located in Iowa City, Iowa — home of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop and one of the four cities worldwide to be designated a City of Literature by UNESCO. Our connections with writing and publishing have meant that we have a flourishing reading series which, in turn, has given us a strong public presence and much community support. Our large and knowledgeable staff — which includes writers, visual artists and actors — are able to recommend books on a daily basis to readers of all ages. Nevertheless, online buying, the floundering economy and the loss of market share to e-books have been very challenging. We are constantly in the process of innovating the business to the current climate. We partnered with Google Editions through IndieBound in order to make e-books available on our website. We have a gifted videographer on staff who films our buyer — the venerable Paul Ingram — discussing current books. Those can be seen both on our website and our YouTube Channel.


The Strand Book Store, New York
Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner

The Strand Book Store has been around for 84 years, surviving Book Row, the Great Depression, big box stores and online retailers, because Strand founder Benjamin Bass, his son Fred and granddaughter Nancy Bass Wyden have been willing to change with the times and keep pace with their customers’ needs.

As a family-owned business, the Strand has the ability to adapt to changing circumstances quickly. When our customers began requesting new books, we started buying books directly from the publishers; when we witnessed a steady increase in our online sales, we redesigned the site to make shopping at strandbooks.com even easier; when customers asked for gift wrap and greeting cards, we added a stationery department….

[W]e host weekly events with authors and artists; we have fun writing and art contests; we sell gift items for book-lovers and nostalgic candy and, to carry it all home, we offer a wide selection of fun and unique tote bags. With 18 miles of new, used and rare books, and the largest art book department in the world, the Strand has something for everyone and for every budget — books range in price from $.48 to $45,000.

Courtesy Tattered Cover Book Store

Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Co.
Neil Strandberg, Manager of Operations

Maintaining a viable independent bookstore has been hard work for a long period of time, in Denver starting in the early 1990’s with the expansion of brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble and Borders in the metro area, followed closely by the success of Amazon.com.

A crude stability was reached by about 2000, but I’d say that the recession of 2001 again destabilized us and now, when we are not having to accept that an even deeper recessionary cycle is hobbling consumer spending, we are adapting to the fact that whatever “reading dollars” there are, are increasingly being used to obtain e-readers and e-books.

The work at Tattered Cover has been, then, to re-shape the business out of acknowledgment printed book sales will continue to decline for the foreseeable future. We are smaller, retail space-wise, than we were a few years ago and we will be smaller again, I wager, a few years hence.

Meanwhile we experiment with new product, inclusive of e-books via our partnership with Google, food, gifts and services to local authors.

I have every reason to believe that in ten years’ time there will be a retail setting that everyone recognizes as the logical descendent of today’s retail bookstores. The trick for all of us is to juggle declining printed book sales with new products and new services and the appropriate amount of real estate in the right location. Hardly an easy task but if the indie community has anything going for it, it is the fact that we are a feisty, determined, creative bunch that love what we do. Taking a cue from some of the technologies that been so disruptive, collectively the indie community is crowd-sourcing the sustainable bookstore-like thing of tomorrow. One of us is going to figure this out.

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