Ever wonder what is happening to your local independent bookstores? In my part of the world, independent bookstores either no longer exist or have been slowly fading away. There was a time when independent bookstores faced an existential threat from major book chains (Borders or Barnes and Noble in the US; Chapters and Indigo in Canada). I distinctly remember a time when I wondered why my local independent bookstores were being subsumed by a much larger entity. It is the kind of competition faced by Meg Ryan in the movie “You’ve Got Mail” (also my favorite movie of the 90’s), where the charming Tom Hanks eventually won over Meg’s affection despite the fact that the man directly competed with her little bookshop. But in 2017, bookstores large or small are at a crossroads – online shopping led by Amazon has put the entire brick-and-mortar business in danger of being swallowed by technology. Bookstores, in general, are on the verge of being irrelevant in a society that is more interested in instant downloading of e-books at the next finger tap. That is, assuming people still read books.
This is why I found a recent Boston Globe article so interesting. Briefly, it is about the gradual revival of independent bookstores in America. Not the case yet in Canada unfortunately. According to a Harvard Business School (HBS) study, bookstores are adapting to the enormous changes in their industry by developing what researchers call the “three C’s”: community, curation, and convening. By community, bookstores embrace a community-oriented “localism” wave that has inspired the likes of craft brewers and farmers’ markets that have become staples in many cities. Independent bookstores also painstakingly curate the books they sell to serve their local clientele’s interests and concerns. Lastly, these bookstores have also re-branded themselves as places of intellectual discussions by hosting events and convening like-minded people to exchange new ideas. The growth of independent bookstores has also coincided with increased book sales, upending the notion that people no longer indulge in long-form reading. Part of the success of the independent bookstores has been attributed to the entrepreneurs’ ability to adapt, whether it is by curating gift selections and crafts or holding baking contests on top of readings and discussions. A local example is the Canadian bookstore chain Indigo, which has done remarkably well in recent years unlike its struggling American counterparts. Its key to increased sales? By diversifying its products so that a bookstore is much more than just a bookstore – it is also a gift shop carrying a wide selection of gifts and gadgets for your favorite techie. In other words, there is something in the store for everyone.
What these entrepreneurs have in common is the understanding that bookstores are no longer in the business of only selling books. If that is true, then Amazon is where the action is. How does a bookstore distinguish itself from its counterpart in the digital world? It is to be more like the Swiss watchmakers who have overcome competition from digital watches by emphasizing on craftsmanship. This is the reason for the eternal popularity of Rolex, Omega, Longines and dozens of other high-end Swiss watch brands that never go out of style. Customers are attracted to the Swiss precision and are willing to pay a hefty premium that does not apply to Fossil customers. According to the HBS study’s author, “technology reemergence” is when an industry reinvents itself. To that end, the Swiss watch industry industry is a shining example.
It may be premature to predict the trajectory of independent bookstores. If there has been a reemergence of independent bookstores in Canada, I have yet to hear of it. There is a world of difference between the book industry and the intricacies of the Swiss watch industry. For one, books are fungibles and are easily acquired by any of the dozens of retailers including the online giant Amazon. On the other hand, high end Swiss watches do not come off the printing press in multiple copies, but come from the hands of highly skilled operators and watchmakers. Only a handful of certified dealers carry them. For over a century, Swiss watches have formed a niche market serving high end clientele for whom watches are also status symbols. From this viewpoint, the Swiss watch industry has set a rather high bar for the book industry. However, the book industry has in its own unique ways begun to emerge from the shadow of its current competition, an amorphous mix of technology and socioeconomic factors such as a general decline in reading.
The reemergence of independent bookstores is a positive step for the future of literacy. Moreover, it brings back communities of people. It is very much like returning to a world before smartphones and internet commerce. Perhaps, the revival of mom-and-pop bookstores is only the beginning of a trend for us to return to our pre-digital roots and in the process, creating jobs that would otherwise be lost to automation. It also bring back an intellectual atmosphere through active exchange of ideas with people whom we would not encounter anywhere else. The personal interactions and real-life discussions are exactly what make a vibrant culture.