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Monday, June 14, 2010

A case for indie bookstores everywhere

Do you shop indie? I hope you do.

Independent bookstores are a vanishing breed and you, my fair readers, are key to their survival. My local indie, Fountain Bookstore, has a good selection, knowledgeable staff, and awesome events. If it weren't for this little independent operation I don't know if Richmond would see many book launches or signings. But I'm an amateur when it comes to the indie bookstore biz, so I'm going to let a pro take over from here. My friend Anna from Left Bank Books is here to tell you about the challenges indies face today and  the benefits of stepping outside the big box world so many of us have gotten used to.

Take it away Anna...
So. You love books. You love reading. You can’t wait to get your hands on the next book by your favorite author. You even frequent blogs ABOUT books! Now, here are the important questions: 
  • Are you a conscientious consumer?
  • Do you care where you buy your books?
  • Ever think about the places you’re getting your books from?
If you answered “Yes!” to these questions, then I can’t tell you how much you are appreciated in the independent book world. If you answered “No” then we need to talk.

 I’m the manager at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri, the largest full-line independent bookstore left in St. Louis, and it’s been around since 1969 – 40 years! That’s something to be proud of in this day and age, when so many independents are being forced to close their doors. The battles that indie bookstores are fighting are relentless, and in the current economic climate, more serious than ever. We struggle to survive amongst the monstrous corporate chains and the ultimate antagonist of our story – Amazon.

The economy is terrible right now and we’re all suffering the ill effects, no doubt. But here’s some insight into the book-buying world: Corporate chain bookstores get books in SUCH great quantity that the discount they receive from publishers is HUGE. This is the same for Amazon. Essentially, larger quantity orders get greater discounts, which means they can afford to give you, the consumer, a greater discount on the retail price, while still making a profit.

 Now, let’s look at the indie bookstore. Your neighborhood indie bookstore doesn’t have a warehouse to stock – in fact, they hardly have room for more books that can fit on their shelves! What that means, is that they aren’t going to order hundreds of copies of a book, and as a result, are going to get a LOWER discount on their order from publishers – meaning a discount to you of anything like 30 or 40% off equals money lost and NEVER making a profit. And THAT equals out of business really fast.

 So I realize you maybe could care less – you just want a book and need it to cost as little as possible. I hear you, and totally empathize, I really do. But being an independent bookstore is about supporting our community, getting to know and interact with our customers, and putting money back into our neighborhoods. It’s about NOT being run by a corporation with headquarters across the country, following display models from suits who’ve never been in our store. It’s about retaining a sense of individuality and an atmosphere unique to us. We make our own displays, we make our own requests for author visits and signings from various publishers, and we sincerely appreciate every single person who appreciates us enough to come in and browse or buy at least one book a month.

 Big chains care about their customers like credit card companies care about their paying cardholders, and that’s the simple truth.

 Somehow, the term “online” has become synonymous for Amazon.com. I don’t know when that happened, but it’s incredibly disturbing! When we’re out of a book a customer is looking for, we offer to order it in for them and give them a call when it arrives, and often, I hear, “No, that’s alright, I’ll just look ‘online’.” And that ‘online’ means Amazon. It’s frustrating because we are doing the same thing they are; only they are eating independent businesses of all kinds while they do it. Many indies have an online presence, also. My indie has a website, left-bank.com, where you can see photos of our booksellers, read their answers to silly questions, see what they like to read; see our calendar of author events for the coming months; AND you can buy books online through us! We can even ship the book to you – GASP!

 So please pretty please think about who you’re supporting and where your precious few extra bucks are going when you buy your next book. Even if you don’t shun all chains, awareness is an important first step. Check out indiebound.org and you can find local independent bookstores in your area.

 It would be such a sad world without the community bookstore. Think about it – a world of corporate-run businesses would be like living in a cookie-cutter suburbia where everything is the same and without individuality and character. So please, search out the indies in your towns and make an effort to give them your patronage, because they truly truly appreciate every person who walks in their doors – I can tell you that from experience as a bookseller and as a buyer of books.
Be sure to visit indiebound.org and find your local  store.


  1. My problem is that there's never been an Indie near me. There used to be a Walden's in one of our malls, that closed. There's a Barnes and Noble at our other mall and near the first mall. That's all I have.

    I would LOVE to be able to order more books online, especially considering how poorly stocked the YA section is at my chain bookstores. But I'm 15, I don't have a credit card, and I can't bug my mom EVERY time I want a book. I do what I can to buy online, but I can never find Visa GCs to but at indies online.

    In a way, you could say I'm already suffering from the lack of an indie. But I can't even tell because I've only ever had brief visits in them.

  2. The only bookstores near me are Barnes and Nobel and Borders. We buy my books there, or sometimes at Target or even Walmart.

    There are no little bookstores near here that I know of.

  3. I shop and love indie especially when they hold events or if they work with authors or provide autographed copies. For example I buy out of state indie books such as Constellation Books, Rainy Day Books, and a few others because they sell autographed books. We have a few indie bookstores here and one I love! The second not so much because I have gotten major attitude every time I walk in and who do you complain to when its the owner?

  4. I support my local indie (that is thirty-odd miles away) by going to their events and purchasing books there when I attend their events. While the majority of my books are purchased from Amazon's bargain section, or preordered from Amazon, the rest of my books are purchased at my Indie.

    Also, when I travel, I try to go to Indie bookstores and buy a book from an local author at the local shop. I usually spotlight that shop on my blog and try to drive traffic that way if I can.

    Indies rock, and I want them to stay around, but for the volume of books I buy, I can't buy them all at my Indie (especially since it's like 70 miles round trip) so I do what I can to support the awesome that is Indie bookstores and encourage all of you to do what you can too!

  5. I wish we had an indie bookstore close by. We don’t even have Barnes & Noble or Borders. The closest bookstore is a Books A Million about an hour from me. For now I rely on the library, Walmart, the bookstore on base, or Amazon. I do try to hit up the indie stores when we’re vacationing near one which isn’t as often as I’d like.

    This was a very informative post. If we ever live near an indie bookstore I can promise that is where I’ll do my shopping :)

  6. Hooray for posting Anna's great article! And hooray to all the commenters who try to support Indies even if their communities have already lost their independent bookstores. I promise we will rise again as the tide of disgust at mega-anonymous shopping experiences turns. If you don't have a store near you, consider buying online. You can browse indiebound.com to find your favorite store. And many of us have deals and discounts. ALSO, consider USED books if you are on a budget. It's the ultimate green experience.

  7. I live sort of in the country so I buy most of my books via Amazon. It's the best way for me to get them. There are no independent stores around me and the nearest Borders doesn't carry everything.

  8. I live on a teeny tiny island and there are 3 different bookstores on here and I think they are all independent except for maybe 1. I'm not sure because this store also has three others in South Florida its called Books and Books. The other two though have been here for as long as I can remember and were always each others competitions. The only really problem I have with all the bookstores here though is the limited selection on manga/graphic novels.

    Maybe manga doesn't have a big market here but I would love to finally find a store here with a wide manga selection instead of having to go to a big chain store to stock up when I go away on vacation.

  9. I work with Anna at Left Bank Books
    and agree with everything she said.
    I would also like to add that Borders (including Waldenbooks) and
    Barnes & Noble have such clout that
    if their buyers pass on a new book,
    it sometimes does not get published. This ultimately limits the variety of voices that get heard. The strength of a vital democracy is in the openess of discourse and the participation of ALL citizens.