Indie Resiliency

It’s been a tough week for Barnes & Noble and Borders. Between take-over bids, proxy fights, and employee layoffs, two of the biggest book retailers scramble to find strategies to deliver future value to demanding analysts and shareholders. The executive teams are busy, but not much of the conversation is about books or serving customers.

“Shrinking the fleet’ of stores, more rounds of big-box closures for landlords, and being “massively exposed” all point to the problems of being big. The business is beholden to shareholders more than customers and employees, let alone vendors. Avoiding an iceberg or other obstacle is much more difficult when you’re steering a big ship.

People constantly ask us how indie booksellers are doing, given the delicate economy and the growth of e-readers. It’s hard to offer a precise answer, since indie booksellers vary in size, specialty, community wealth, vision, and energy. But their common experience is that they are much smaller than the corporate booksellers, and as a result, have a better ability to listen to customers, adjust inventory selections, and engage employees to navigate turbulent waters. It’s just easier in a small boat.

One former recipient of the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year Award told us this week that his sales are up five percent this year. Another star indie bookseller is investing in a better location, a little bit smaller, but now in a green building. Another said she’s not going to “chase e-book business” as her customers want quiet time away from their gadgets. Yet another is planning an aggressive outreach marketing effort this fall to capitalize on a market now without a bookstore due to the closing of a small corporate bookstore mall location.

It’s to be expected that shifts happen. Right now, these indie booksellers are clarifying their strengths and focusing their efforts. It doesn’t make sense for indies to emulate corporate stores. Not only are they unable to match the massive amount of investment required, their customers don’t want their local booksellers to look, feel, talk, and relate to them like corporate entities.

Resilient, local, connected, and passionate about the written word, indie booksellers who apply sound principles of retailing to their business may actually be the most able to navigate these waters. With patience and perspective, some will even benefit from the shifting currents.