Have we in fact moved beyond the big book chain? As I wrote yesterday, Barnes & Noble do appear to be having a hard time. Borders is gone, as are Waldenbooks, and B. Dalton. Is this the redawning of the age of the local bookstore? Professor Ryan Raffaele and the Harvard Business School send us this video singing the praises of the independent bookstore business model, using as a case study Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA. The story comes from Quartz.

(If you see no video here, click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser.)

The Passive Voice manages to get his knickers into a twist over this, opining that because Porter House is in Cambridge they somehow have an unfair advantage — obviously everyone in Cambridge has lots of money and buys books all the time — whereas if Porter House were in, say, Green Bay, Wisconsin, things’d be a whole lot harder. But he then discovers that Green Bay’s The Reader’s Loft appears to be doing just fine thank you. In expiation he brings us this link to a C-Span video from 2014. The Reader’s Loft still appears to be doing well.

It does seem that bookstores have been going through a bit of a resurgence. We’ve lived through recession and digital revolution, and the weaker animals in the herd have disappeared. The remainder are thriving by exploiting their niches — both of geography and of subject matter. Although these are tough times for retailers in general, there seems every reason for optimism. There remains a fund of goodwill towards local businesses, and if you focus on your local population and provide books that they’ll be interested in, you can succeed despite general trends.

Professor Raffaele sums this up as his three Cs:

  • Community: Independent booksellers were some of the first to champion the idea of localism; bookstore owners across the nation promoted the idea of consumers supporting their local communities by shopping at neighborhood businesses. Indie bookstores won customers back from Amazon, Borders, and other big players by stressing a strong connection to local community values.
  • Curation: Independent booksellers began to focus on curating inventory that allowed them to provide a more personal and specialized customer experience. Rather than only recommending bestsellers, they developed personal relationships with customers by helping them discover up-and-coming authors and unexpected titles.
  • Convening: Independent booksellers also started to promote their stores as intellectual centers for convening customers with likeminded interests—offering lectures, book signings, game nights, children’s story times, young adult reading groups, even birthday parties. “In fact, some bookstores now host over 500 events a year that bring people together,” Raffaelli says.

Here, from Ingram Content’s blog is a piece about one of these three, Building Communities which does seem to be something independent bookstores have been good at doing. Ingram, as our largest book wholesaler among other things, is in a good position to judge, and of course has an interest in encouraging.

The single biggest problem facing independent bookstores remains real estate. Success marches with favorable rental, or even better ownership of the space. To some extent this leads to bookstores moving out of city centers — which of course brings its own benefits, even if it may give the superficial appearance of a book desert.