Independent Bookstores Last Ones Standing?

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Independent Bookstores Last Ones Standing?

Many years ago I worked in one of the better independent bookstores in Boston, called The Book Exchange, on Charles Street.

Then I went to work up the hill at Little, Brown when they were still in Boston, eventually to head off to be part of a start-up publisher and then ultimately to leave publishing altogether where I careened straight into the jaws of death of 35mm photography (and later digital mapping software at the hands of Google’s ad-supported mapping content model).

Konica was closing down 4300 or so Fotomats in the early 1990s, those funny little drive-thru huts in parking lots that were mostly bought by FedEx. It turned out that even that tiny real estate was too expensive to sustain the standalone photo business. Kodak was scrambling to catch up in digital photo to unexpected West Coast competition while sinking under the weight of all that lost 35mm film, single-use camera, and photographic paper high-margin business. And we know what happened to them.

Which begs the question: If something as mainstream as 35mm photography did not warrant a chain of tiny stores in parking lots, why would books warrant huge superstores strewn across our paved land?

I say they do not. In fact, I predict we will see many more closings of chain bookstore locations in the near term as the shift to ebooks accelerates.

But coming full circle, the excellent news in all this could be the ironic survival of the many excellent remaining independent bookstores, who have outlasted the storm from superstores and online competition. They can distinguish themselves through interesting eclectic selections and by building trust with readers looking for a local reading guide and an inspiring place to mingle with others.

Online owns the huge selection, the independent bookstores stay small enough to own the local. Superstores are actually trapped in the middle and as a result are vulnerable. Possibly they will follow the Walmart model and move into “smaller large” stores, but that is a very expensive proposition. Just look at Circuit City and CompUSA as models for that challenge. They are both gone.

As I head off for Book Expo tomorrow, which years ago was filled with many independent booksellers and independent publishers in ways not seen today, I am optimistic about positive changes as the landscape shifts.

— Caleb

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