By Cynthia Swanson, Author of The Bookseller (Harper, March 2015)
My cousin Mary, who works at Secret Garden Books, a small independent bookstore in Seattle, says that she and her colleagues call that big online retailer (you know, the one that starts with an A): “It Which Must Not Be Named.”
While that may be a bit ominous (and I am certainly not going to knock Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any big retailer - they carry books and they sell mine, for which I’m grateful) - I understand the sentiment. The vast majority of consumer book-buying these days is done online. Second place goes to the big retailers, whether they primarily sell books or also carry other items.
That leaves little shops like Secret Garden, and hundreds of other indies around the country, scrambling for book lovers’ business.
It’s a tough industry. Indies generally do not have the luxury of running sales or slashing prices. When you walk into an independent bookstore and ask for the latest bestseller, you can expect to pay full cover price for it. That could be as much as 15-25% more than you’d pay a big retailer, which can afford to give discounts and have promotional sales.
So why would anyone do that? We all have to watch our pennies, right? Why would anyone knowingly pay up to 25% more for the same item, if they could get it for the lower price?
I can’t tell you anyone else’s reasons. But I can tell you mine.
1) Indie bookstores are the heart of a community. Here in Denver, we have a major indie, The Tattered Cover, which opened more than 40 years ago in a small shop in the Cherry Creek North shopping district. They now has three large stores, as well as two satellites - one at the airport and one at the downtown train station. Its flagship store is in a restored theater in a historical district. The Tattered Cover recently moved into this space, and their choice of neighborhood was a boon for every other business nearby. When indies thrive, other businesses do, too.
2) Indie booksellers are interested in their customers. Set foot in an indie, and chances are that if you ask, you’ll get the opportunity to meet the owner. I know the owners of not only The Tattered Cover, but also several other indie shops around town - BookBar, The Bookies, and others. Owners of such shops are in this business because they love books. As such, they want to get to know other book lovers. They want to know what you like to read, what events you’d come to at their store, how they can support your book group. Come back again and again, and chances are they’ll remember you and your tastes.
3) Indies support one another. Sure, the competition for business is fierce. True, if their customers shop at a different indie, they lose precious business. But you know what? Despite all that, indie booksellers have each others’ backs. Last fall, I went to the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers’ Association trade show to pitch my novel. Here’s what I noticed: these people like each other. They get each other. They may be competing for business, but they know that success of any indie is good for indies everywhere.
I’m a discriminating book consumer - I don’t buy every hot new title that comes out - but in particular, I try to support local authors and debut novelists. And I generally buy their books at indie bookstores. Yes, if I shopped online, I’d have a few more bucks in my pocket. And yes, I know I’m fortunate to have a liberal enough “book budget” that I can afford to spend a little more to buy a book in an indie bookstore than I would if I bought it online.
But I’m okay with that. The smile on the face of a bookseller, the handshake, the warm words exchanged as my purchase is rung up - all of that is worth much more than a few extra bucks in my pocket.
|Photo by Glenda Cebrian Photography|
CYNTHIA SWANSON is a writer and a designer of the midcentury modern style. She has published short fiction in 13th Moon, Kalliope, Sojourner, and other periodicals; her story in 13th Moon was a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and three children. The Bookseller is her first novel. Visit her on Facebook