Independent Bookstores Thrive in the Age of Amazon

Starting in the late 1990s, Atlanta business owner Frank Reiss struggled to keep his small bookstore in operation. Along with the growing dominance of Amazon, he also lost much of his lucrative rare book business to the online auction house eBay. Reiss considered closing his beloved A Capella Books in the early 2000s until his father suggested that hosting events with authors could turn things around for the better. The plan worked: A Cappella sold more than 500 books at a 2005 event with former President Jimmy Carter. The company cleared more than $13,000 in sales in a single night, equaling the store’s revenue for an average month.

Since then, author events have become an essential sales driver for A Cappella as well as hundreds of other independent bookstores across the country. Unable to compete with the low prices offered by Amazon, these small businesses have started to lean into their roles as meeting places for readers. Besides holding events with prominent authors, today’s independent bookstore owners also stock shelves with titles that reflect their own personal tastes. Book lovers appreciate this careful curation, especially as a break from onlineretailers like Amazon. “I think the facelessness of e-commerce has stirred in enough people…a sense of nostalgia for real stores, buying real products from real people having conversations,” said Reiss.

In fact, many independent bookstores have similarly come back strong after surviving near extinction in the 2000s. The American Booksellers Association estimates that 2,470 small bookstores are now in operation, up from 1,651 in 2009. The organization says that innovations such as cheaper administrative technology as well as social media marketing have helped drive this recent bookstore boom. What’s more, independent outlets have also benefited from the decline of big rivals such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, which went out of business in 2011. Like Amazon, these large stores lacked the personal touch that makes places like A Capella Books so special to its loyal customers.

Questions:

  1. How do author events help drives sales at independent bookstores?
  2. Besides author events, what other factors have contributed to the recent independent bookstore boom?  

Source: Susan Kitchens, “One Bookstore Finds the Secret to Succeeding in the Amazon Age,” The Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2019.

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