An Open Letter to the Indie Bookstore
Dear indie bookstores,
I love you. I not only want you to stay in business…I want you to thrive, to be the epicenter of your local literary community. That’s why it kills me a little when I read about another one of your locations shutting its doors. It always makes me wonder where things went wrong. Was it one big mistake? Or was it a series of little missteps that added up to not being able to pay the rent? It’s hard to say; you guys don’t get near the media coverage Borders did when they folded back in 2011. What I know is that I’ve patronized some very good indie bookstores in my day. Sadly, I’ve also walked through the disorganized stacks of some shitty ones that had doom written all over them. Point is: I want to help. Me—an author, a customer, and a lover of books—I want to share few recommendations that may put you on the right track.
#1 – Someone needs to be the resident expert:
You know that book High Fidelity by Nick Hornby? You know how in that book the main character knows pretty much every damn thing there is to know about music? There should be a person like that working for you, but y’know…their knowledge is all literary. I should be able to say “I like the early work of Bret Easton Ellis” and this person would be like, “If you like Ellis, you’ll love Joe McGinniss Jr.” Seriously, hire someone who knows their shit. I’m far more willing to take the recommendation of a living human being than the Amazon algorithm. Buying a book is something you can do anywhere, but the interaction with a tried-and-true bibliophile is harder to come by. That’s ultimately what I want when I go to an indie: a literary Pandora with people skills.
#2 – You should constantly be doing events:
Most people won’t know this, but it’s ridiculously hard to get a gig reading at a Barnes & Noble. They have a long series of hoops, and take a certain amount of delight getting authors to jump through them. Indies, however, are an easier animal to deal with. Usually, you only need to talk to one person—not a series of people—and that person tends to be working in the store. It’s an incredibly simple business arrangement: one party wants to perform while the other party provides the venue. These two parties will then promote the event. If all goes well, this additional foot-traffic leads to more books sold and more exposure. So it’s a real head-scratcher that some indies abstain from hosting events. Yeah, maybe it’s a pain in the ass or maybe you had a bad experience with them in the past. But the live reading is one of the singular advantages you have over Amazon…and you should exploit the fact that they can’t do it. You may not be able to match their pricing, but you damn sure can hold live events. Give people a reason to come to your store.
#3 – Rare, signed, and out of print:
Years ago, MacAdam/Cage discontinued printing The Contortionist’s Handbook by Craig Clevenger. No big box store had it. No electronic edition was floating around, either. There was a print copy on Amazon, but it was going for over $100 or something like that. I really wanted to read it, so I started hitting up the local indies and lucked out. They had a copy. Granted, it was a little beat up, but they had what I was looking for and only charged me $6 for it. Honestly, I would’ve gone as high as $25 without blinking. The point is that this was a perfect example of an indie coming through when all else failed. It’s a niche that Barnes & Noble doesn’t really bother with and can be super sketchy (not to mention overpriced) when done online. As much as I love the work of Matt Bell, I’m not going to pay Amazon $55 plus shipping for a copy of Cataclysm Baby. The rare/signed/out of print market is yet another advantage that indies have, but they need to be doing their due diligence and exploiting it.
#4 - More than just books:
My local indie, Prospero's, actually goes above and beyond used books. They have DVDs and Blu Rays. They have used records. They have video games (I saw a Legend of Zelda gold cartridge there once). Being a used bookstore doesn't mean you have to be confined to just books. You can (and should) offer up other media if you have the shelf space. See also: pens, mugs, apparel, bookends, bookmarks, journals, and maybe even food and beverage if you can swing it. One of the coolest things that ever happened to me in an indie was I bought about $100 worth of stuff and the owner cracked open a beer for me. He didn't sell it (no liquor license); it was a thank you gift. That's the kind of thing that never happens at a big box store.
Don’t try to overpower the mighty machine that is Amazon or replicate what the big box stores are doing. Instead, play to the strengths only an indie can offer. Exploit the few advantages that you have so people keep coming back. Charm people with your singular experience. Record stores and comic book shops are damn good at this, and maybe that’s because they’ve figured out a way to be more than a place to buy something. They’re a place to be. It’s a venue where like-minded people come together. You could be that.
**Normally, I post Amazon links to the works mentioned in the column, but I'm not going to do that this time (for obvious reasons)**
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