I don’t recall exactly which sky-is-falling installment of the 2008 economic meltdown was in the news on a day when I was working at a nonprofit job that entailed dealing with the children of really rich people in Lower Manhattan, but I remember every mother who came in was in a panic. And for good reason: it felt like we, as a nation, were going to lose everything. If the one percent freak out over a financial crisis, the rest of us can only worry we’re mere days away from living like characters in a Steinbeck novel. Fearing the market-inflicted doom, all I could do was go to a reading in a Brooklyn bookstore and drink the free wine there. The plan to get drunk and not think about my future worked until I was about three or four cups in, when I started wondering how the beloved indie bookstore I was standing in expected to survive when pretty much everything else looked like it was going to hell.
Five years later, the bookstore is still going strong, and they’ve even expanded into another neighborhood with a second location. While I’ve watched restaurants, bars, coffee shops, clothing boutiques, grocery stores, and nearly every other type of independent business close their doors as a result of the financial crisis, that indie bookstore, and others, are still going. Not only are they still going, but they’ve outlasted their original biggest threat, chain stores like Borders (closed) and Barnes & Noble (future uncertain), and many are thriving even as Amazon tries to tighten its grip around the publishing industry. It isn’t a success story per se, but the continued survival of many independent bookstores in the face of so much adversity provides unique lessons for anybody who wants to open a business of their own, bookstore or otherwise.
The thing is, people are fanatical about independent bookstores. In a 2011 Slate article about why you should shop for your books on Amazon, Farhad Manjoo talked about “bookstore cultists,” or the type of people who might stop talking to you if you tell them you purchased The Flamethrowers on Amazon. Now, if anybody were so radical as to cut you out of their life because of where you shop, then yes, that’s a little excessive. But in focusing primarily on price, Manjoo ignored two simple things: you go into an indie bookstore and deal with a real person instead of clicking your mouse a few times, and people are simply loyal to certain brands and businesses. No matter what sort of discount they’re offering, it’s often difficult for online businesses to build up a devoted customer base because they feel so impersonal.
While I don’t necessarily foresee these indie stores banding together to defeat another evil corporate giant that is looking to crush them, reading Boris Kachka and Joshua David Stein’s New York magazine piece, “6 Independent Bookstores Are Thriving — and How They Do It,” got me thinking that while each of the examples cited in the piece has its own story, what successful independent bookstores share is more important than what sets them apart. There’s no secret recipe, but any young entrepreneur looking to start their own business should consider walking to their local bookstore to see how it gets the following things right:
1. Like snowflakes, no two indie bookstores are alike
I’ve been to dozens of bookstores all over the country, and the one thing that strikes me is that every single one of them has it own, individual feel. There’s the cozy used bookshop in Boston with a cat that sits on the leather couch, and there are cathedrals to books like The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. While I’ve seen countless coffee shops trying to use Starbucks as their template — only to close up immediately because customers don’t want another corporate-feeling place to sip their lattes — there is an undeniable feeling that, in this world where so much is prepackaged for us, indie bookstores just feel real and right.
2. The secret ingredient is love
The explanation for #2 is simple: people don’t open bookstores because they think they’re going to strike it rich slinging paperbacks; they do it because they genuinely love it. There’s always the chance to expand (like one of Kachka and Stein’s examples, McNally Jackson, is planning to do this year by opening a second location in Brooklyn), but of all the store owners I’ve met, I’ve never walked away with the impression that they’re looking become millionaires. It sounds simple because it is, but so many people strike out on their own with the intention of striking it rich that they lose sight of what’s important.
3. The focus on community
Events, working with local businesses, and getting people from outside the store involved in different ways all serve to strengthen the relationship between a bookstore and the community it serves. In Brooklyn especially, I’ve seen WORD in Greenpoint (now with a second location in New Jersey) work with all the other stores around their neighborhood. Community in Park Slope does a big reading series with the local synagogue that has brought readers like Donna Tartt and Malcolm Gladwell into a borough they used to ignore. It all shows that indie bookstore owners don’t open up shop with the hope of becoming the biggest bookstore in the country: they see themselves as local businesses that engage and care about the community. If you care about where you live, the people who live around you will care back.
4. Local bookstores understand social media
Are you one of the 15,000+ people who follow Washington DC’s Politics & Prose on Twitter? Did you realize that 18,000+ follow Book People in Austin, Texas? Or maybe you’re one of the 90,000+ who Powell’s in Portland. Whatever the case, despite all the money big brands (like this week’s punchline, U.S. Airways) throw at social media “gurus,” indie bookstores understand Twitter (and Facebook, and Tumblr) better than almost any business.
5. Indie booksellers empower their employees
I’m not saying they offer a career path with fringe benefits and a retirement program, but I’ve known the people behind the registers at some stores for years. In a place like New York City, where new faces come in and out of your life every hour, that says something. It says that the owners push their employees to take pride in their identity as booksellers. It sometimes feels a little like the corny Whole Foods “team member” jargon, but it actually works. People who work in bookstores care a great deal about what they’re doing.