Thursday, April 9, 2009

Indie Bookstores Press On Despite Economy

A look at what independent bookstores in Michigan are doing to keep sales up in a tough economy.

by Jennifer Guerra

Independent bookstore fans who live in the Ann Arbor area have probably heard that Shaman Drum Bookstore might close. Well, there's good news from bookstore owner, Karl Pohrt:

"I'm going to move ahead and continue to do this store."

The store will look a little bit different - the top floor for university text books is gone. Instead, there's one main floor for trade paperbacks and hard covers, and it could become a non-profit. Down the street Borders isn't doing so well. The Ann Arbor-based bookstore posted a 57% drop in 4th quarter earnings, and it plans to cut expenses by $120 million this year. So Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra went out to find how others Michigan bookstores are doing.

The tiny town of Mason, Michigan is located between Jackson and Lansing. There's an independent bookstore there called Bestsellers Bookstore and Coffee. When I visited on a Tuesday morning, it was surprisingly busy for a Tuesday morning: there's Bill the local minister, Rollin Dart whose family owns the local bank, and a group of ladies in the corner doing Bible study.

At the center of it all is Jamie Robinson. She's the owner. She opened the independent bookstore 12 years ago, back then she only sold books. About four years ago she bought a bigger building and added an espresso bar and some breakfast snacks, which she says has done wonders for business:

"Oh yeah, before maybe you'd have 40 people a day, now we're probably running 150 people a day through the doors, yeah."

She says about every other person that comes in for coffee buys a book. But book sales are still pretty flat. Plus, she's competing against Google books, and to a lesser extent Kindle and other digital books. So you'd think, given the recession, she'd be nervous about the future of indie bookstores. But you'd be wrong.

"No, I'm really not. It's a great niche. Most generally if people want to stop local, they still are very conscientious that we have a brick and mortar building. That when school groups come and say can I sell Girl Scout cookies here...Amazon has never hosted an author reading, Amazon has never had a book sale for a local community charity. People that realize the value of independents, they'll wait a couple days for a book."

Turns out Robinson's experience isn't the exception.

Jim Dana says "for the most part they're doing alright."

Dana is executive director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. It's a kind of umbrella organization for indie book stores in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. He says it's hard for any business to do well in a recession.

"Our stores actually got through the holidays better than they thought, I think. So they came out of the holidays with a sense of confidence that they could get through this is. For the most part, there are a few exceptions."

As far as new independent bookstores go, last year was pretty much a wash for Michigan: 7 stores opened, and 7 stores closed.

In the early 90s, there were around 4,500 independent bookstores nationwide that were members of the American Booksellers Association. Now there are about 1,800.

The ones that seem to make it have turned their bookstores into community centers. They hold open mic nights, sell coffee or wine, and offer writing classes.

Lara Zielin is a Michigan author. She has a new book coming out for young adults coming out in August. It's called "Doughnut Days." She's rooting for the 1,800 indie bookstores to survive. She says, like a lot of first time authors, she's going to rely pretty heavily on indie bookstores to get the word out about her book, because getting her foot in the door at a big bookstore chain is pretty hard.

"There's usually 1 buyer at the top for the big bookstores, and so if the buyer at one of those big bookstores doesn't like your book, they won't carry a lot of copies. But with indie bookstores, for example, someone who might just work the cash register might get a hold of a galley that comes in. They'll read it, love it, and then tell the owner that they love it. And it's much more likely for the bookstore to carry it. So it's not just one person who is the decider. There's lots of deciders.

And it seems like the deciders in Michigan's independent bookstore world are determined to stick around.

Special thanks to Michigan Public Radio for featuring this outstanding and positive article!!!!!!

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