Independent bookshops find unlikely prosperity
Jamie Grassman, owner of Beyond Bedtime Books in Dormont, remembers well when e-readers first became a thing.
“When the Kindle first came out, and the Nook, all of us were like ‘uh oh,’ ” she said. “We did not know quite what to expect but we didn’t think it would be good.”
It’s no secret small bookstores have had a rough couple of years. With large national chains and online book sales offering books cheaper and sometimes faster, finding a way to stay competitive drove many indie bookstores out of business.
But as Independent Bookstore Day — planned for April 29 — approaches, even as the rest of the retail sector is reeling from store closures, for independent bookstores, things finally are starting to look up.
“As long as Amazon can afford to sell books at a loss, then we will always be at a disadvantage,” said Susan Hans O’Connor, owner of Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley. “You just have to focus on whether you can create a story for your store that resonates with your community.”
Between 2010 and 2016, the number of American Booksellers Association-member independent bookstores rose from 1,400 to 1,775. And sales have seen an uptick over the past five years as well, according to the group; book sales in independent stores rose by about 8 percent year-over-year in 2012. Those gains held steady for the next two years, with 2015 sales rising about 10 percent. And for all of 2016, according to the association, sales at indie bookstores were up about 5 percent from the year prior.
“While not every bookstore or community has seen this growth, the national trends are clear,” said Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer for the booksellers association.
The numbers from the past few years show small gains, but also show a reversal of the longtime trend. Between 2000 and 2007, about 1,000 independent bookstores across the country closed.
But then a funny thing happened: Borders, the main competitor to giant bookstore chain Barnes & Noble, shut down in 2010. Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader, a challenger to the Kindle, was a commercial flop. It seemed growth for a large bookseller that didn’t have Amazon’s massive inventory of other products was extremely difficult.
Other sectors of retail now are struggling, with big companies like Macy’s, Walmart and Warrendale-based rue21 announcing store closures and layoffs, with online shopping getting a lot of the blame.
But since independent bookstores already have been through this disruption, many have figured out how to fit in with book shopping trends.
“People are changing their shopping habits,” said O’Connor, who bought Penguin Bookshop in 2014 — the sixth owner in the shop’s 88-year history.
While demand for online sales isn’t going away, shopping locally has become more appealing in recent years, she adds; supporting Penguin means supporting the local YMCA and the Sewickley Public Library, both of which Penguin supports.
Rather than trying to go head to head with behemoths like Amazon, indie shops are highlighting what they offer customers that a large store or website can’t.
In some cases that means finding a profitable niche, like Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont did. It’s been in the same spot on Allegheny River Boulevard for 27 years, says co-owner Trevor Thomas.
“Mystery is the second-highest selling niche behind romance, and as long as the shop’s been open, we’ve catered to mystery,” Thomas said. “We have books that Barnes & Noble is not going to have. And we have customers who call us from all over the country asking for certain books because they know us and they trust us.”
Small bookstores that did survive the purge of the early 2000s figured out that the key to staying open is being a part of the community. That includes sponsoring local nonprofits, hosting community events, or book signings with local and well-known authors.
O’Connor, through her publishing contacts in New York, was able to get Stephen King to come to the Sewickley area last August, a huge draw for the shop.
“That was great for us and for the community because everyone wanted to find out where this little town of Sewickley was,” O’Connor said. Penguin will start Independent Bookstore Day a little early, hosting a signing with novelist Stewart O’Nan on April 27.
Grassman in Dormont also continued the tradition of a community bookstore in that neighborhood when she opened Beyond Bedtime seven years ago, in a spot that had housed a bookstore for 25 years. Beyond Bedtime started as an online bookstore of vintage, collectible books where people could go to find nostalgic children’s books. She kept the name and while they still have plenty of books for kids (as well as a kids’ reading room), she expanded the offerings to include more variety.
And since she’s an avid reader, Grassman says, her customers trust her recommendations. “When I am here people come in to get my advice,” she said. “It’s not like walking into a giant store where a lot of your workers are just there to ring the register.”
Thomas at Mystery Lovers in Oakmont says community building is definitely a two-way street.
“You get to know your customers’ tastes, which they appreciate,” he said. “I trade books with my customers all the time, and they clue me into things I might have missed.”
There still are challenges ahead for independent bookstores; Amazon has opened several brick-and-mortar stores and reportedly plans to add more. But local bookstores that have forged ties with their communities seem to be holding steady, which doesn’t surprise Cullen, from the booksellers association.
“Indie booksellers remain a resilient and entrepreneurial group,” he said.
Kim Lyons is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.