Print books and independent bookstores are back and growing. Here’s the short version: despite the invention of the ebook, print books never really went away and are, in fact, climbing steadily year after year. The emergence of big box book store chains caused a crisis in the indie bookseller world in the 90s and early 2000s, closing thousands of book havens across the country, but then online sellers like Amazon sank many of the big boxes, leaving a vacuum that indie stores are quickly filling again.
Just ask bestselling author and bookstore owner, Ann Patchett: “You may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead—to which I say: Pull up a chair, friend. I have a story to tell.” Patchett promoted her soon-to-open bookstore while on her book tour and, like a creative entrepreneur, she spread her narrative worldwide, “Now that we could order any book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realized what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased.” When asked about ebooks she continued the narrative, “Most independent bookstores, and certainly Barnes & Noble, are capable of selling e-books through their Web sites, and those e-books can be downloaded onto any e-reader except Amazon’s Kindle, which works only for Amazon purchases. So you can support a bookstore in your community and still read a book on your iPad.” Indiebound.org even offers an app to help you locate independent bookstores (and libraries) in your area. You can also use it to purchase ebooks from indie sellers.
Is the story of the indie→big box→Amazon→indie cycle true? It doesn’t matter. As Patchett says, “Say it enough times, and it will be true. Build it, and they will come.” And they did. They still do. Yes, Amazon claims more than 20% of print book sales, but according to the American Booksellers Association, overall sales at independent booksellers rise by 8-10% each year.
Ann Patchett may make things up for a living, but her theory about bookstores as community centers isn’t an invention. Fortune sites the source of hope for the future of books and bookstores: millennials, “they are more interested in the group experience, with the bookstore becoming a social destination. Across the United States, the 22-to-34 age group has become a larger percentage of the physical book-buying demographic. It is now 37 percent of the market, up from 27% in 2012, according to Nielsen Books and Consumers. Millennials are also putting a huge chunk of their reading budget—82%—into books they can hold, keep and eventually share.” This is especially true in California. Open Education Database says that some cities read more than others, listing the top cities as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, and San Diego.
The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles named itself ironically, certain that it would be a glorious but short-lived business. Now, twelve years later, it’s California’s largest new and used book store. Flavorwire named it one of the “20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World”. They credit their success with, “people like you who want to keep actual books and records existing in the world”.
The Booksmith in San Francisco has been in business for more than 40 years and continues to weather the big box and digital competition. Its owners credit its longevity with thinking of Booksmith not as a store, but as a place where people come together. For them, the key is events–they host 200 per year.
Will opening a bookstore make you a millionaire? No. Is it a labor of love? Absolutely. But if you love books and you love your community, it’s also a viable and rewarding endeavor.