Resilient Indies Prove Nay-Sayers Wrong

Some may say “the sky is falling” for independent booksellers, but the data tell another story: even as the economy struggles to recover, indies are holding their own and showing modest gains. In today’s edition of the e-newsletter Shelf-Awareness, John Rubin, owner of Above the Treeline, reports that sales during the first half of the year at 51 large independent bookstores (with average annual sales of $2 million) have risen 1% over the previous year. Above the Treeline aggregates detailed sales data that retailers use to improve their own selections.

If flat is the new up, modest growth isn’t bad at all. Our greatest challenge in the book industry is to avoid the pitfall of polarized thinking and learn to simultaneously hold multiple truths. Though e-books are meeting with early success, it doesn’t mean that sales at indie bookstores are suffering. The fear of the unknown in the publishing world has taken its toll while indie booksellers simply keep listening to and serving their customers.

Chuck Robinson’s It Takes a Village Books: 30 Years of Building Community, One Book at a Time (produced on his store’s Espresso Book Machine) has been a most welcome read. Chuck and Dee Robinson, both former English teachers, own Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. It’s one of the country’s leading indie bookstores and Chuck and Dee have given not only to their community, but to the community of booksellers as well.

What Chuck and Dee have created is a profitable small business that contributes not only to the local economy, but has enriched Bellingham’s quality of life. They employ local residents, recycle money within the community, and are an active participant in Bellingham’s civic life. With regular events, a curated selection of books, involvement with local charitable efforts, they are doing well and doing good. Now that’s a life well lived.

Chuck writes, “… We will continue to fight the good fight. We’ll look for new business models. We’ll cut costs where we can. We’ll go on finding ways to add value. All we can ask of you is to think about what you really want. If you’re happy with a world (or even your corner of the world) without a community bookstore, it doesn’t matter where you buy your books. If you want to keep that bookstore — or any local business — it does matter. Lecture over.”

In combining head and heart, Chuck is a model for most people who choose independent bookselling. Thoughtful and articulate, indie booksellers question, probe for better understanding, think of the cultural consequences of our choices, and run their businesses with integrity. Success is defined and measured in many ways, not just in salary and bonuses. Even vacations are marked by other bookstores visited. Books and all they represent permeate and define our entire lives.

So we’re finding that some people like to read books on their gadgets and we’re seeing that people continue to visit their local bookshop as well. There’s value to be found in reading, regardless of format. While analysts are busy guessing, debating and navel-gazing, indie booksellers are busy creating their own outcomes — by recommending great books, helping build their local economy, and enhancing the quality of life in their community.

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