Revitalization: The independent bookstore industry is growing with a loyal customer base looking to shop locally

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As people in the US turned inward over the past year and a half and got used to virtual work calls, remote training, and Zoom birthday parties, consumers seem to have found a respite from the onslaught of technology addiction: reading.

In June, the Association of American Publishers reported that consumer book sales were up 17% year-to-date, reaching $ 4.1 billion in sales. Sales across all book categories rose 18.1% to $ 6.3 billion in the first six months of 2021.

Although Amazon and other large retailers continue to dominate the book market, independent booksellers who have adapted to changing economic and social conditions have been able to create part of that sales pie and serve a consumer base eager to escape both screen time and local support Businesses in their community, including those in central Massachusetts.

“One of the most important things that really helped us at the start of the pandemic was Amazon because they stopped shipping books for five or six weeks,” said Paul Swydan, owner and operator of The Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton. “They chose to focus on the grocery delivery market that has been in a stranglehold for almost a decade.

“If you wanted a book, you had to get it from somewhere else, and we often were,” said Swydan. “That really helped us to expand our customer base.”

Photo | Courtesy Word on the Street

Alyson Cox, owner of Word on the Street in Marlborough

At the same time, some local booksellers found a customer base looking for ways to entertain children who had been tied to laptops and other devices for months during virtual school. That was the case with librarian and teacher Alyson Cox, owner of Word on the Street in Marlborough, a children’s bookstore that she opened in October just months after she was fired from her own job.

“We were the kind of business people who were looked for during the pandemic,” said Cox.

Their customers were fed up with screen time and wanted to find board games, books, and other analog ways to pass the time.

Double-edged sword

“When it comes to independent bookstores, they are fundamental in any community they are located in,” said Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.

Such businesses tend to play an active role in the areas they set up, Ineson said, from sponsoring local sports teams to hosting community events. This desire to be part of their community drives many booksellers to settle down in the first place, she said.

While many were adapting quickly, building their own e-commerce options, or taking advantage of pre-existing models available through industry groups, it was difficult to move into the function of a de facto warehouse during a pandemic store closure, Ineson said. They needed to be quick on their feet and open to adapting their business models while taking much of the personal connection their industry is known for.

Those who only had a rudimentary or no e-commerce option at all were given the task of developing and maturing their systems. Those who already had sophisticated online shopping options have tuned in to this side of their business.

Bookshop.org was launched in January 2020 and works with bookstore partners to help them fulfill orders directly through virtual storefronts. According to the website, bookstores get 30% of the retail price of the book sales they generate through the website without having to worry about the backend businesses like warehousing and shipping. Second, Bookshop.org puts 10% of its regular sales in a money pool that it splits up and then pays out to its independent bookstores twice a year.

Bookstores in central Massachusetts have jumped on the bookshop bandwagon, including both Word on the Street and The Silver Unicorn. While neither of them has overly hyped their affiliations and individual store fronts, both store owners said the biannual payout was a huge benefit of working with the online retailer.

While local businesses in central Massachusetts and beyond have been tasked with overcoming these pandemic-induced hurdles, the independent bookstore market in the region has so far thrived on the other side.

Photo | Courtesy The Silver Unicorn

The Silver Unicorn in Acton has expanded its customer base in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I thought about the early pandemic that we would see stores closings in New England, and we actually did, but you can count them on one hand and you still have fingers left,” Ineson said.

Despite the challenges posed by online competitors, let alone a pandemic, the industry seems to be breaking into a new chapter.

“The overall trend over the past 20 years, yes, the number of independent bookstores in New England has been declining,” Ineson said. “But the general trend over the past eight years is that the number of independent businesses has increased every year.”

Membership at NEIBA, she said, has risen consistently for almost a decade. This is in line with major industry trends across the country.

A 2020 working paper by Harvard Business School professor Ryan Raffaelli, based on data from the American Booksellers Association, shows independent bookstores grew 49% between 2009 and 2018, from 1,651 to 2,470.

He attributed the resurgence to what he called the 3Cs: Community, Curation, and Convocation, with independent bookstore owners wooing Amazon and major chains customers by highlighting the connection to community values, curating personalized inventory, and presenting themselves as intellectual centers.

That’s a big change from the late 1990s, when the ABA reported a 43% decrease in the number of independent bookstores in the second half of the decade, right after Amazon.com launched, according to Raffaelli’s report.

Sustainable industry

This kind of data gave the final push to Jo and Huck Truesdell, the owners of the TidePool Bookshop in Worcester, to open for online sales in April 2020 and in person for late summer.

The duo first brought up the idea in 2017 after pulling back and realizing that the city had no independent bookstores other than Annie’s Book Stop, a franchise that operates locations in New England. Between the initial talks and the opening of the shop, two independent bookstores opened in their market: Bedlam Book Cafe and Root and Press.

They debated for a while whether it was the right idea to move forward.

“We didn’t want to open a bookstore. We wanted to open a bookstore in Worcester, ”said Truesdell, a retired long-time kindergarten teacher from Worcester.

Ultimately, industry trends and examples in cities like Providence, which has a healthy ecosystem for independent bookstores, convinced them to move on.

“It makes sense, and we’re seeing it here at TidePool,” said Truesdell.

At their store, an upgraded store in an old mill building, with bespoke shelving and warm lighting, the Truesdells are optimistic they made the right choice as customers trickle in and often hear about TidePool through word of mouth. They haven’t held an official opening because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they find the local community welcomes them and note that millennials new to town have had a special presence in their business. They look forward to creating their event plans as they begin to incorporate in-person events into their calendars.

“We believe it will be a successful business,” said Truesdell.


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