Posted February 24, 2014 by in Bibliotherapy

Independent Bookstores: Staying in Business in Competitive Times

If you’re reading this, you are a bibliophile. Take a moment. Let that digest.

Yes, my friend, you love books. The smell of them, the look of them, the weight of them in your hand. A well-stocked bookstore is your favorite haunt; you are capable of passing endless hours in one, and you consider it time well spent. Yet, in the age of Kindle, Audible, and the big box stores, have independent bookstores seen their final days? Can the cozy, comfy, mom-and-pop owned and operated bookstores we all love so much stay relevant and in business in these highly competitive times? Or are they doomed to the same fate as the video rental stores of yesterday?

Luckily for those of us who depend on independent bookstores for our happiness and book fixes, they aren’t going anywhere. What’s going to keep them in business? The dedication and love the owners have for their stores, books, and customers is one thing.

Karin Wilson, who co-owns Page & Palette in Fairhope, Alabama, says that loving what she does for a living motivates her to keep going in these tough economic times.

Page & Palette in downtown Fairhope, Alabama. Photo by micdesign.

Page & Palette in downtown Fairhope, Alabama.               Photo by micdesign.

“I’m excited every day I go in!” says Wilson. “I am fortunate to have a job that energizes and motivates me in so many ways. Fascinating people frequent bookstores. I truly can’t imagine doing anything else!” Like Wilson, Cheryl Upchurch, co-owner of Capitol Book & News in Montgomery, Alabama, feels inspired by her job. “I love meeting new people every day, and the never-ending supply of new reading,” says Upchurch. “It is a great job!”

Of course, love of the job is not enough to keep a business in operation. To compete with box stores like Books-a-Million and Barnes & Noble, the independent stores have had to get creative with advertising, marketing, and visibility. At Page & Palette, Wilson offers a complimentary Frequent Buyer program which gives customers a $5 coupon for every $100 they spend. “Also available is our Page & Palette Perks program,” says Wilson, “an annual $25 membership that gives customers a $20 coupon for every $100 spent, as well as reserved front-of-the line at author events and other benefits.”

For Capitol Books & News, visibility and community events help them with sales. Upchurch says participation in the annual Alabama Book Festival, located in Old Alabama Town in downtown Montgomery, gives them the opportunity to sell books, support the event, and interact with the authors as well. Their business location brings in customers, too. “We are in a commercial block in a very old, very nice, neighborhood,” says Upchurch. “The upside is that our block is busy with restaurants, a movie theater, art galleries and other great shops. We love being in this neighborhood.”

Capitol Book & News in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Capitol Book.

Capitol Book & News in Montgomery, Alabama.  Photo courtesy of Capitol Book.

Having multiple events throughout the year is one more way independent bookstores are pulling in customers and staying relevant. Capitol Book & News has author signings throughout the year; Tim Dorsey, whose latest book, Tiger Shrimp Tango, was released last month, will be at the store on February 27.

Page & Palette is an events-driven store as well. According to Wilson, they host hundreds of author and community events every year. “Most of my time and energy goes into keeping our store active with these events,” says Wilson. “Enthusiasm pulls customers in to our store—and it keeps them coming back. Additionally, we have many sidelines and gifts now. We mix in fun cooking gifts with cookbooks, toys with children’s books, travel accessories with travel books…matching gifts with like-themed books.”

Box stores are not the only competition independent stores have these days. E-readers have made a dent on sales, but both Wilson and Upchurch agree that e-readers will not drive stores like theirs out of business. “A few years ago I think it [e-readers] affected our sales more than it does now,” says Wilson. “E-books will increase in sales every year, but most of our customers who have e-readers still buy books. We sell e-books online too and match our competitors’ pricing. But the heart of our business will always be the printed word.”

Likewise, Upchurch recognizes the impact of e-reader sales on business. While she agrees that e-books have impacted their sales, she believes that printed books are still important and is “glad a lot of other folks still feel that way as well.”

Independent stores trump box stores and e-readers in the personal touch department, too. The owners and staff at independent bookstores have a passion for the printed word, and they enjoy sharing that love with customers. “Everyone who works here loves books and reading,” says Upchurch, “and is happy to talk about them with our customers. We also care about our community and our city.”

Wilson agrees with that assessment. About the personal touch, she said, “Our staff read books. Because books are their passion, they want to match readers with books they love. Our customers feel special when they come to our store because they know that we truly care about their experience while they’re here.”

When I asked Wilson and Upchurch for an example of what they would suggest to readers who love books and bookstores, surprisingly, they gave the same answer: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. “[The book] was wonderful, and people who read this will actually discover on many levels why independent bookstores are here to stay!” said Wilson. In addition, Upchurch recommended And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass and The Soloist by Mark Salzman, which she called “a perfect book.”

Capitol Book & News has been in operation in Montgomery since 1950; Page & Palette has been in downtown Fairhope since 1968. With records like those, their owners’ enthusiasm, and creative ideas that keep customers coming back for more, these stores will continue to serve patrons for many years to come.

Now that I’m armed with new suggestions for great reads from people who know a good book when they see one, I’m off to the bookstore! Hope you’ll visit your favorite independent bookstore sometime soon as well!

Rate this post

Mollie Smith Waters

Mollie Smith Waters teaches American literature, theater, and speech at a small community college in rural Alabama. Her hobbies include reading, writing, traveling, and walking.