In 1732, Peter Faure opened The Bertrand Bookstore in Lisbon, Portugal. Faure hoped it would become a hub for intellectuals. Turns out Faure was onto something. Not only did his store succeed, it’s still open today, 282 years later, and is certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest bookstore. The Bertrand Bookstore is much more than an old establishment, it’s a testament to the longevity of books and independent booksellers. Just as television didn’t kill radio, as many predicted at the time, the e-book revolution has not been strong enough to close the cover on books and Amazon’s tentacles aren’t long enough to close the door on bookstores.
In June, a new, independent bookstore—Bookends and Beginnings— will open in Evanston, Illinois. And in April, Clarksburg, West Virginia welcomed Novel Places, another indie bookstore. Coming on the heels of the bankruptcy of Borders across America, it seems surprising, even crazy, to see people hanging their own shingles on brick and mortar bookstores. But something strange is happening in the world of books. It all started years ago, when Borders expanded, putting many small bookstores out of business. Then, along came Amazon which took a big bite out of Borders’ sales. Borders filed for bankruptcy in 2011, creating room, once again, for independent, community-based stores that offer things Amazon can’t—author signings, wine bars, children’s camps, bicycle book delivery, and writing classes.
Across the country, indie bookstore owners are reporting not just better sales, but, in some cases, their best ever. John Evans, co-owner of the California-based Diesel stores says that the Brentwood location had its highest sales in the history of all its stores on December 24, 2013. Village Books in Bellingham, Washington also had its best day ever on December 23 of the same year.
John Mutter, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Shelf Awareness, says that the number of independent bookstores has grown over the last few years. Mutter, with years of experience in this industry, was the long-time editor of bookselling at Publisher’s Weekly. His current venture, Shelf Awareness, publishes two on-line newsletters a week, one for readers and one for people in the book business. He attributes the recent success of indie bookstores to two things. First, the buy-local movement which has been gaining strength across the country. In offering products and services that cater to local communities, bookstores have been able to set themselves apart from large chains. Second, Mutter says that e-book publishing sales have flattened out over the last couple of years and this trend is continuing through 2014.
“A lot of people are going back to printed books or doing a mix of both printed and e-books,” Mutter explains in a radio interview on Chicago’s WBEZ Morning Shift program on May 8, 2014.
Jeff Garrett, the co-owner of the future store, Bookends and Beginnings, says during the same radio interview, that it was predicted that when television arrived it would be the end of radio, “and here we are.”
The American Booksellers Association, a not-for-profit trade organization that supports independent bookstores, echoes this upward shift in its 2013 Annual Membership Report. Bookstore locations increased from 1,900 on May 15, 2012 to 1,971 on May 15, 2013. This is good news for both new and existing bookstores, some of which have been in business for more than a hundred years.
Still, there is one roadblock for indie bookstores, a permanent hurdle that cannot be forgotten—Amazon. In the May 29 issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Jim Milliot writes a cover article with an apt headline: “Can Anyone Compete with Amazon?” A colorful pie chart in the center of the cover, (derived from the newest figures from Nielson Market Research) shows clearly that E-commerce (which includes Amazon) has a “meaningful share of both the e-book and print markets” with forty-one percent.
Though bricks-and-mortar stores account for the remaining fifty-nine percent, the majority, “the trend, despite the slowdown in the growth of e-books, continues to move in favor of online sales. In part, that is due to the growing share of print book sales that are now online.”
But indie bookstores are spreading their wings, with an increased online presence to counter Amazon’s web. Writes Milliot: “According to ABA (American Bookseller’s Association) CEO Oren Teicher, the association’s IndieCommerce product has been serving about 375 member stors, with those outlets seeing a 5% sales increase in online print books in 2013. In addition to added sales, Teicher says the ABA believes a consumer’s ability to connect with independent stores online via IndieCommerce is contributing to the growth of in-store sales.”
The best indication of the power of indie bookstores is their longevity, their ability to not only exist but thrive within today’s technological climate. The Bertrand Bookstore is just one example; Green Apple Books in San Francisco has been in business since 1967 and continues to prosper with multiple locations that sell not only new books, but used as well as new and used DVD’s and CD’s. Bart’s Books in Ojai, California started in 1964 when Richard Bartinsdale’s book collection grew so large that he built book cases along the sidewalk and put coffee cans in shelves for donations. In Iowa City, Prairie Lights offers three storeys of books and was once home to the local literary society which met through the 1930’s. Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and ee cummings were just a few of its prominent members. A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario, has been open for 40 years and has hosted a number of prominent authors including Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood and Emma Donoghue. In Victoria, British Columbia, Munro’s Books (owned by Alice Munro’s ex-husband) has been in business for 51 years, is located in a stunning neo-classical building, and features visits from popular authors such as Kenneth Opel. The Strand, in New York City, opened its doors in the 1890’s as part of Book Row, which featured 48 bookstores. Today, it’s the only one remaining but does contain 18 miles of books.