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What I've Learned, | Jun 20, 2019

Independent Book Stores Keep Print Away from Grave

The 'death' of print books never actually happened.

In 2010, books were pronounced dead. 

According to articles written at the time, printed works were either slain by their own publishers, choked by the economy or drowned by e-books and promises of a new digital age. Populations of book-lovers wrote forlorn eulogies for the print industry, and coffins filled with nothing but apprehension were lowered into premature soil. 

These caskets were empty, of course, because the “death” of print books never actually happened. 

The truth is that independent bookstores aren’t struggling. Not only are they flourishing, but they’re perhaps the only hope consumerism has for clearing the fog of book-store doubt. Indie bookstores all over the country are responsible for an amazing movement; they’re shredding past eulogies and writing their own narratives, ones that reflect the prosperity of the industry. 

In southern Indiana, examples of these bookstores are Viewpoint Books, Fables & Fairytales and the Book Corner. 

“Independent bookstores are so much more than stores,” said Beth Stroh, owner of Viewpoint Books. “They’re gathering places. They’re venues for community events and activities. They’re places where you can talk to other book lovers or, if you’re an introvert, you can browse all the books you like and not be bothered. There’s much, much more than selling books that happens here.”

Stores like Viewpoint Books have irrefutable power; they combat the struggling book-store stigma by bolstering an aged, yet eternal zeal for literature, by defending the incalculable value of reading and advocating for all past, present and future works. 

Viewpoint Books embodies versatility and fortitude, even if the corner shop is unassuming at first. Its sign is untouched ’70s vintage and its two large storefront windows arouse not intimidation but wholesome nostalgia for window shopping on small-town afternoons. The inside is by no means flashy, modern or metropolitan, but what it lacks in glamour it makes up for in its antiquity. 

Stroh may be the “newer” owner of Viewpoint Books, but the store’s had roots in Columbus since 1973 and has been beloved by both community members and visitors long before the original owners handed it to Stroh. 

Despite myths about book-store vulnerability, Viewpoint continues to do very well; its sales have been on the rise along with its popularity. Stroh can recount dozens of visitors from all over the country, a detail that emphasizes people’s determination to shop local and buy books from the stores that value them most. 

“People are actively seeking out independent bookstores in communities,” she said. “They find us, somehow, and they make efforts to come here. It’s special.”

Stroh’s observations aren’t unsupported, either. Data reveals that there is, and has been, a consistent, healthy growth rate for books and bookstores. A study conducted in 2017 by the PEW Research Center found that “print books remain by far the most popular format among all age groups,” with 72% of Americans in 2016 having read a print book and only 28% having read an e-book. 

Printed words on a page have a remarkable ability to transcend even the most glaring threats to their existence, and this power is what bookstores harness so well. Stores know how to utilize matchless social interaction and superior customer service — values one can only can find in-store at places such as Fables & Fairytales in Martinsville. 

This quaint, independent children’s bookstore and its co-owner Dara Jackson have won outstanding business awards for their dedication to the market. Every aspect of the store, from its strategic shelf arrangements to its calculated collections of genres, is intentionally designed to better a customer’s experience and help children engage with art, literature and creativity.

“It’s all about how you adapt,” Jackson said. “We’re on the comeback. It took us 15 years to learn how to adapt with types of [online] competition, but some of us have figured it out, and we’re doing very well.”

One way Jackson adapts is with imaginative, personal touches that emblematize the magic of independent bookstores. 

While the store primarily sells children’s books and low-tech toys, there is one young adult section housing titles like “Harry Potter,” “Catcher in the Rye” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” that features a small, yet incredible detail. 

Underneath the outward-facing books are cards on which Jackson writes small synopses of the books, assigns them personal ratings and identifies potentially problematic themes such as sexual content, drug use or bad language. She reads every single book and takes the time to draft these cards so customers can have that unequivocal, personalized book-store experience.  

“Booksellers sell print books, and we’re very good at that, so let us be your personal shoppers,” she said. “People want that…they want more research into the product; it’s one reason why people choose to shop in store and not online.” 

However, there is an interesting conflict between in-store and online that many people don’t understand, and it’s proved to be a valid threat to independent bookstores. 

When asked about the rumor that independent bookstores are struggling, Jackson immediately shook her head and said, “Independent bookstores are struggling? No, no we’re not. But because people think we’re struggling, we’re facing a big problem that’s actually causing us to struggle: special orders.”

Special orders are often placed by customers wanting to support small businesses, but in doing so, the opposite is actually occurring. For every special order, the owners have to buy that book from Amazon to place it in the hands of the customer, and this results in a loss of profit for the smaller store.

“Amazon and e-readers have created this world where you can have any book you want instantaneously,” Jackson explained, “and so people are kind of in that world. They want their specific book. We lose money with every single special order.”

To combat losses from special orders, Jackson pours herself into event planning to engage the community and bring in customers. While this might seem like an example of adaptation, it’s actually a glimpse into a cyclical nightmare. When special orders are placed, store owners resort to event planning to counteract the profit loss. The time-consuming process of event planning means owners work round-the-clock seven days a week, resulting in a lack of personal time and an increase in stress.  

Jackson and her husband have decided to try and sell the store — but not because of finances. 

“Money-wise we’re doing just fine…it’s simply a lack of time, and that all goes back to special orders,” she said. “So just come in, see if there’s something you want and buy it. If there’s not, that’s OK. You don’t have to buy anything, but this is still the best thing for independent bookstores.” 

Special orders do make up a significant portion of independent bookstore sales, but despite this factor, most bookstores across the country are still seeing incredible success rates. Fables & Fairytales and Viewpoint Books are two of more than 40 independent bookstores in Indiana alone, and while their prosperity may not be broadcast across media platforms, that success still exists. 

It’s true that the threats of free online reading material and e-books, the recession and ample publishing layoffs did pack triple punches to the industry in 2010, but the American Booksellers Association, or the ABA, started reporting as early as 2014 that bookstores and books were back on the rise. 

The association found that over the past 10 years, independent bookstores have seen a national resurgence in popularity and affluence. 

A resurgence means more and more bookstores are being opened, established stores are appointing new owners and a new generation is stepping forward to dust off shelves and provide fresh vision to the industry. The ABA counted more than 2,400 member locations across the country in 2018, a number up from 1,410 member stores in 1,660 locations in 2010. 

Indie bookstores are resilient above all else. They offer unique — and unparalleled — opportunities for the discovery of great authors and great writing. They fuel communities, serving as both social centers and points of connection among readers, authors, other book lovers and neighbors. 

One interesting feature of these communities is their impressive appeal to a range of demographics. Age is an especially noteworthy facet, as millennials are working toward matching older generations in print book fervor. 

Cynics can say what they want about supposedly tech-obsessed millennials and “Gen-Z” kids, but these two groups are kicking tech to the curb in favor of printed works and the aesthetic versatility of independent bookstores. In 2016, Nielsen Books and Consumers reported that the 22-to-34 age group made up 37% of the print-buying demographic, up from 27% in 2012. 

Technology has created a void in many millennials, one spawned by their 2000s era-childhoods that saw a rapid cycle of technological booms and product enhancements. In a world overwhelmed by automation, it makes sense why millennials are seeking the nostalgia and stability books can provide. 

This desire for physical books is not new, but the validation of want for those books is. Owners of independent bookstores stand by this affirmation as well, specifically Margaret Taylor, owner of the Book Corner in Bloomington.

“People want to hold a book, they want to own it, they want the feel of it, they want to crawl in bed with a book,” she said. 

The Book Corner is an incredible representation of independent bookstores; it’s what all of them should aspire to be. The store has character, a loyal customer base and history beginning in 1964 when Taylor’s father opened The Book Corner and the now-closed Book Nook.  

The overriding success of the Book Corner is owed to its customer base, but also because of its appealing atmosphere. It’s a gem in the heart of a community rich with culture, but not much is done to advertise the store’s existence and value. It holds some events such as poetry readings and book signings, but Taylor chooses to rely on her faithful clientele to keep profits high.

“People want to be here, to shop here and support us,” she said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t have customers thanking me for being here. I’m very appreciative that we’re in business. It’s a two-way street; I support my customers and they support me.”

At the end of the day, crafting new dialogue around print is not easy, but forming relationships with customers is just one step in that process. It’s going to take massive social shifts to restore bookstores to their pre-recession glory, but unlike other industries, publishing has proved its ability to withstand the ebbs and flows of sociocultural change. 

The Book Corner

100 N Walnut St.
Bloomington, IN 47404
(812) 339-1522

9 a.m. - 6 p.m., Monday
9 a.m. - 8 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday
9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday

Fables & Fairytales

38 N Main St
Martinsville, IN 46151
(765) 913-4100

10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday

Viewpoint Books

548 Washington Street
Columbus, IN 47201
(812) 376-0778

10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Monday-Saturday
Open later and Sundays for special events

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