Wednesday, April 27, 2022

In celebration of independent bookstores

 Barbara here. I am devoting today's blog to independent bookstores, because April 30 is International Independent Bookstore Day. It's a very worthy cause that deserves much more attention than it gets. It even has its own Twitter hashtag, #indiebookstoreday, which I used on Facebook today since Twitter and I aren't on speaking terms at the moment.

Since I first got into the author business over twenty years ago, it seems to me that independent bookstores have staggered from one crisis after another. First it was the Big Box retailers. In Canada, Chapters/ Indigo often tried to drive the indies out of business by opening a big store right up the street. The big stores drove harder bargains with the publishers and demanded bigger discounts and other preferential treatment like book placement that the indies couldn't afford but publishers couldn't refuse. Next, megastores like Walmart and drugmarts began skimming off the biggest selling books, eroding everyone else's profits even more.  Then along came Amazon, with its aggressive sales approach and deep discounts, and blew the whole brick-and-mortar book business out of the water, including the Big Box and Megastores. Quite a few closed or went entirely online. Many customers switched to digital books downloaded online. Everyone prophesied the demise of the physical bookstore entirely.

Signings are always more fun with author friends

And finally along came the pandemic, supposedly the final nail in the independent bookstores' coffin. Retail stores had to close their doors during lockdowns and reduce their capacity at other times, people avoided going out and switched to online buying instead. Every business scrambled to find ways to stay afloat, but most independent bookstores could not afford to offer free shipping or sales discounts when their profit margin had always been very slim and they still had rent and utilities to pay, staff to pay, and inventory to purchase.

During these difficult times, especially during the past two years, they survived mostly on the loyalty of customers, which was based on the relationships they had built up and the unique personalized service they had provided in the years before. Shopping at an independent bookstore has always been different than shopping online or in a megastore. Staff turnover is minimal. Staff know their books and have read many of them, and they know their customers. Customers can always rely on a friendly personal greeting, usually from the owner, and a knowledgeable recommendation that helps them find the exact book they are looking for, even if they don't know what they want. "That blue book set in Venice with the police inspector. I think."

There is a place for Amazon and the big online retailers. They made a huge number of books accessible to everyone, no matter how remotely they live. They reduce costs for those who would otherwise struggle to buy books. However, indies can't match the discounts that the big guys offer because they haven't the power to negotiate publisher discounts, but those discounts are often at the expense of authors. Both publisher and author are squeezed by aggressive tactics from the big guys, and in the end, there will be fewer books and fewer publishers.

But indies offer things the big guys can't. There is nothing like the personal touch and the ability to browse bookshelves and peer at back covers. Nothing like the owner who listens to what you like and knows exactly what to suggest. Who helps you to find a lesser known writer whom you will love.

Aunt Agatha's Bookstore in Ann Arbor.

For most authors except the mega-best selling ones, that connection is crucial. We build up relationships with bookstores and we rely on that relationship and personal knowledge to help us reach new readers. Most authors are unknown and never hit the big best-seller status that gets them to the front racks at Walmart, Cosco, or pharmacies. Independent bookstores recommend our books to the customers they know would probably enjoy them, and bit by bit, our readership grows. 

Despite their struggles, many indies have not only survived but are drawing readers back in who miss the personal connection and knowledge and who recognize the value of a local business that is part in the community. Bookstores host readings and signings, they often have book clubs and children's events. This is what must be celebrated and cherished. On April 30, many of us authors will be participating in events at local bookstores. I urge everyone to look them up, post about #indiebookstoreday on Social Media, and if you can, drop by your favourite local bookstore. 

I'll be there - at Coles in Carlingwood Shopping Centre in Ottawa, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

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