Monday, June 22, 2009

Be a friend to Indies!

I've worked at independent bookstores for more than half my life, for the past several years as a buyer and events person at an indie in San Francisco. My family also owns a different small independent bookstore here in the city. So I may have a bit of a bias here. But something that drives me a bit crazy in the media is talk of “the demise of the little bookstore.”

First of all, this is a down economy, for sure. But all kinds of businesses close all the time. We don’t moan about how the cookie business is collapsing every time a bakery goes bust. I mean – don’t get me wrong, I am romantic about bookstores too, but sometimes they just close. That doesn’t mean that ALL bookstores are closing. And these articles very rarely talk about the fact that there are also new indie stores opening!

Indie bookstores aren’t going anywhere without a fight, kids. Here’s how you can help:


Indies can be large or teensy. The can sell new or used books, or both. They can be specialty shops (children's only, or all mystery, for example), or they can be general interest. The main thing is, that they are owned and operated by people in the community, and they reflect the individuality and taste of the owners and buyers.

"Big Box" retailers are large chains such as Barnes and Noble or Borders. They typically occupy more than 50,000 square feet. They tend to focus on "big" titles from major publishers -- small or unusual publishers and first-time authors tend to be shut out. Malcolm Gladwell calls big chain bookstores "blockbuster factories." The sheer volume is so intimidating that customer tends to go straight for the piles on display - which is nice for the John Grishams of the world, but if you want the chance to find something that isn't already popular, you might have a problem.

Centralized buying offices also mean that the people who are CHOOSING the books for the store probably have no connection to the reading habits or needs of the people in the neighborhood. Though they buy many more books than I ever could, they ultimately have a less diverse selection.

Independent bookstores are a part of their neighborhoods. Their buyers live there - they respond to what their neighbors want - they are flexible - the store's selection can be quirky and feature smaller titles prominently because they aren't in pay to whatever the latest publisher push is. Yep, publishers pay dearly to be on the front displays of a big-box store -- the same is NOT true for independents. If you get rid of Indies, you will have a much more homogeneous and a much less interesting reading landscape.

As for online retailers like Amazon - of course they are convenient. I am not saying they don't have their place! However, whenever possible, I prefer the personal attention and expertise given to me by real bookselling humans -- and the fact is that there are other reasons to prefer local brick-and-mortar stores, too.


The reality is, money spent locally tends to remain local. Local businesses contribute to the local economy by providing jobs - in fact, here in San Francisco, they provide residents with the most new jobs. They also spend their money in other local business and service providers at more than twice the rate of chains. (That's according to the Andersonville Study of Retail Economics). They pay taxes which go to fund local government services, streetlights, schools and more.

Let me break that down for you: WE pay for your kid's public school. AMAZON does not.

Here are a bunch of numbers, you can skip them if you want: quotes a recent study in Barnstable Mass which found that small downtown stores "generate an annual net SURPLUS of $326 per 1,000 square feet. Big box stores on the other hand require more in services than they produce in revenue - an annual tax DEFICIT of $468 per 1,000 square feet."

Oh, and then there are charities. According to the SF Local Merchants Association, non-profit organizations receive 350% more support from local business owners than from chains. Wow.

OH, and did I mention the environment? Yeah, well, since local businesses generally set up in town or city centres, and buy more local goods, they contribute less to sprawl, congestion, habitat loss and pollution.


Independents do things that Amazon, and even most chain stores, won't or can't do. Things like hosting awesome author events and creating book fairs for your local school. Working with librarians to create programming and book lists. We don't MAKE MONEY at this, people. Most booksellers I know are way overeducated and way underpaid. However, we do this stuff because we are called to do it. Because we love books, and we want to share them with you. Because we love our neighborhoods, and want to make them better places for everyone.

As for "my indie is too little and doesn't carry XYZ! So the big store is better!" - umm, we aren't mind readers. If I don't have a ton of mass market romance, it's because mass market romance hasn't historically sold very well in my neighborhood. But y'know what? When people ASK for it, I GET it. My romance section is three times larger than it was a year ago, because I got requests. It will stay large as long as people keep shopping it. Your local bookstore wants to make you happy, O Customer! So help us help you. Tell us what you want. Seriously. We're listening.

Plus, we can get you just about anything in a couple of days, sometimes even in ONE day, with no shipping charges. Yay!


Well, first of all, you can shop at an independent bookstore whenever possible. You gotta buy books at indies if you want them to stick around. Obvious, right?

I know that isn't always a possibility. We aren't the library, and we can't give big huge discounts on bestsellers like CostCo can. BUT! Many indies do have loyalty programs, teacher discounts, senior discounts, even friend-of-the-library discounts and the like, and almost all sell remainder "sale books". Even if you switched 10% more of your buying power to indies, you'd be doing a great thing both for them and for your local economy.


Most indie bookstores in the US participate in "IndieBound", (which used to be called the Booksense program). What is that? Well, we put together an amazing list of picks every month, the Indie Next list, and distribute those newsletters in every member store. We also sell gift cards, which means that if you buy a gift card from my store, you could go to ANY indie store in the country to spend it. Which is pretty awesome, since they are in every state and online as well.

My big suggestion is, next to your Amazon or B&N link on your blog or website, why not also LINK TO INDIEBOUND? That way people can find the indie store nearest them. Indiebound even has an affiliate program, if that is your thing.

You could also choose YOUR fave indie bookstore and link to that! If you are a writer, you might even be able to partner with them - make your local indie your "official" bookstore - so that people can always get autographed copies of your book if they shop at your neighborhood store, that you link to on your website. Give people the option, you know? Especially because, if you are a writer and you're trying to kiss up to an indie bookstore, and the only thing you link to is Amazon, you make us cry.

SO LINK. It is one easy-peasy way to be a Friend to Indies.

OK, my rant is over. Thank you for your attention.

-- Jennifer L., NCIBA


  1. Excellent. I'm lucky enough to have these guys as my local indie (kids). They do so much to bring excellent bookish people to our community.

  2. This is so great! I can't wait to share it.

  3. As a writer (my 12th novel comes out in September, and my first YA comes out next spring), I'm a huge fan of indie bookstores. I'm also a San Franciscan.

    I'll confess, I'd like more reciprocity from the bookstores. If I have to plead with a local branch of, say, Books Inc, or Keplers, to carry my titles - and these aren't small press titles, I'm on St. Martins Minotaur - it sours me on telling people to please order their copies from those shops. I'm more likely to tell them to shop somewhere that is willing to support me without my haranguing them.

    I much prefer indies to big chains or online, but that kind of loyalty should work both ways, surely?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. The Philly Liar's Club just did our second "Philly Liar's Tell Truth About Independent Bookstore" party at Clinton Books in Clinton New Jersey.

    We couldn't agree with you more and we're doing what we can do raise reader / book buyer awareness in our little corner of the world.

    Check it out:

  6. As an indie publisher I could not have gotten into the business without the help of San Francisco independent bookstores. They TOLD me what to do! And they accepted by first little book, got me a distributor, bought my books, promoted my books. Borders could barely shelf them in the right place. I owe everything to the wonderful people at Cover to Cover, Books Inc., Alexanders, Browser Books, Christophers ...

  7. I cannot agree more! Though I may be a little bias as well. I Just wish "IndieBound" work for us North of the boarder! Great Rant.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Great post and a great project as well. We ourselves are running a blog which aims to support independent bookstores (although we mainly focus on Europe). Recently we have launched a project of putting together a series of articles entitled "An Insight Into the Current State of Independent Bookselling" - with contributions by a selected list of guest bloggers. If you'd be interested in more info or in establishing some form of cooperation with our blog, drop us a line at:
    bookstoreguide AT

    And good luck with your project...

    Ivan + Sonja (