Like many others who a part of a book group, my book group has become a vital part of my life. Having spent decades in the book business, it’s also been a fascinating portal into not only what others love to read (and why), but to see how they prefer to read.

Over the last decade, I’ve seen several of my book group friends switch to e-books. Each month, I bring my print volume.

The feel of a book creates a different kind of reading experience.

The feel of a book creates a different kind of reading experience.

This week, one of the e-book pioneers told me she’d recently read a printed book and is going back to print. “What is it that is drawing you back to print?,” I ask. Without specifics, my friend and neighbor explains that, “it’s a totally different reading experience … it’s more real and it’s simply a better experience than reading on a screen.”

Even though she has all of the Amazon perks from being a long-time Kindle user, she’s limiting her e-book reading to travel. Otherwise, she’s going back to print and buying those books at our local indie bookstore, who hosts my neighbor’s knitting group.

The IT professionals forecasted that e-books would be the dominant format by now. What clouded the judgment was the fascination with technology as innovations were radically changing our lives. Now, there’s been time and space to compare both experiences. And, people are choosing what feels best and most rewarding.

With a six percent growth in unit sales January through June of this year versus 2015, my neighbor is not alone. Reading is more than accessing type immediately.

Print books are a beautiful invitation to shut out the distractions that surround us and enjoy the weight of a good story or immerse ourselves in the topic we choose.

Not that readers who have been reading e-books will choose to return completely to print, but readers are acknowledging the reading experience is different … and better … with print.

Take a look around your community and you’ll see that the retail landscape has changed over time. Shops and restaurants go in and out of business as tastes and buying habits change or the cost of doing business escalates. Neighborhood demographics shift, business owners retire, and new concepts emerge. When change is such a constant, it’s surprising to see the same businesses remain at the top of the list of what people most want in their communities: coffee shops, bakeries, and bookstores.

The internet may have come to dominate much of our lives, but there’s still a demand for places to gather and connect with other people. High tech simply cannot satisfy some of our needs for high touch.

Workshop retreat for new bookstore owners and managers

Entrepreneurs from four countries gathered to discuss the opportunities to put a new vision to today’s bookstore.

During last week’s workshop, Owning a Bookstore: The Business Essentials, eighteen entrepreneurs from four countries gathered to discuss trends, develop competitive advantages, learn the book industry’s metrics and best practices, and chart a course for owning a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in the age of technology. While some still used their gadgets to take notes or check messages, the conversation throughout the week kept coming back to the hunger for a sense of place, a healthy environment to learn and grow and gather, the satisfaction from holding a book and turning its pages, and an appreciation for the many ways in which locally owned businesses contribute to their communities.

The growth of e-book sales has slowed and will eventually plateau. Rather than replace books in print, e-readers have simply offered yet one more option for ways to read. E-books have certainly added some turmoil to the book industry and the bookstore business, but by no means will they lead to its demise. While electronic reading represents a little over 20 percent of sales, printed books command the overwhelming share of industry sales.

Format alone does not define a bookstore that sees its mission as far greater than selling books as commodities. A bookstore can be so much more than a place to buy books: a place where we can escape from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, find comfort and peace, stimulate our minds, stretch our understanding of ourselves and the world, connect with others, create community, and contribute to a sustainable local economy. More than ever, there’s a need for high touch in this world of high tech.

Throughout the holiday season, we’d been carefully watching the National Retail Federation’s daily reports on the outlook for retailers. There was lots of talk about how social media would be aggressively used, along with steep discounting to attract customers into stores. And even more speculation: Has the economy sufficiently recovered to put people in a gift-giving mood?

Many national retailers struggled to not only get people physically into their bricks-and-mortar stores, but also eroded profits by discounting to drive sales, believing that even a modest gain was better than a record loss.

Holiday Sales Strong at Indie Bookstores

Holiday cheer at the new location for Litchfield Books

There was quite a different story for booksellers, according to this week’s report from Publishers Weekly. Brookline Booksmith, an award-winning indie bookstore, reported a “stellar year.” The Book Cellar in Chicago boasted a 38% holiday increase, and Beaverdale Books in Des Moines noted being up 29% for the entire year. In previous updates from Publishers Weekly, Andersons Bookshops in the Chicago area, BookPeople in Austin, and a number of others also reported strong holiday seasons.

How do we explain these double-digit increases in sales at indie bookstores that generally offer no discounting? What’s even more noteworthy is that this year lacked the mega blockbusters like last year’s Steve Jobs biography, and e-book sales continue to increase (yet at a much slower rate). If you’re thinking of opening a bookstore or buying an existing store, you might want to ask yourself the same question … what’s special about indie booksellers that they would outpace national retailers?

Maybe a growing number of people want to unplug from the hype and experience something authentic. Perhaps shopping at a place where you can browse “real” books is appealing in a society where a frenetic pace has become the “new normal.” Having someone smile and offer to gift wrap your book for free? How refreshing. Hanging out in a place that won’t text you an offer while you’re browsing, but will offer some delightful personal recommendations? That’s where I want to be – and suspect that I’m not alone!

Sensible family-owned businesses don’t generally jump at the latest trend or rely on hype and bling to connect with customers. While national retailers scurry for the latest high-tech tool or play games with prices, indie business owners will do what they do best: present really great merchandise, invite you to come in and feel comfortable, be welcoming and genuinely nice on a human level, and be incredibly grateful that you choose to support a local business.

Bravo, indie booksellers for a stellar season! The “Indie” and “Shop Local” movements continue to gain momentum, and you’ve proven that the most important business strategies are not only fundamental, but timeless as well.

People who read and especially those who own bookstores are very special souls. Last week we held our spring workshop retreat and while we never really know how the group will relate and how the week will unfold, we are always reminded of the magic that is created when we put our hearts and minds together on the same page.

Independent businesses, thanks to the ‘Shop Local’ movements, have been gaining momentum. But at the same time, people love shopping online and are growing more comfortable with hand-held technologies. The realities of high-tech influence today’s bookstores as does our continued human need for high-touch. Developing ways to address both led us into some wonderfully rich territory.

Spring Workshop Retreat Graduates

Creating a special sense of place for our community took many varied forms. One store will have a nook of comic books and action figures (a passion of one of the owners). Another new store owner will stretch the world of adult fantasy and science fiction into a concept that will help children learn about science and expand their creative horizons. One will spotlight works by local artists. Still another will focus on healthy (and happy) living. And then there’s another who will explore publishing on local topics.

What’s emerging is an ever-larger way of looking at what a bookstore does, what it carries, and how it serves. Today’s bookstore is not just about coming in to pick a book off the shelf. It’s about catering to a lifestyle, sharing interests, and creating a gathering place. Merchandise selections go beyond books. Programs are not limited to visiting authors. Sustainability rests on multiple sources of income.

While there were two people who had worked in bookstores, most had never worked in a retail setting. Sharing insights, lessons, knowledge, and wisdom from other careers, we all stretched our ideas of what a bookstore is for a community … and all the possibilities that can make indie bookstores even more fun, interesting, and vital.

The book industry is one big tent where everyone belongs. Readers tend to think and feel deeply and are interested in the big wide world of life. Unlike online stores, there’s nothing like visiting a comfy bookstore filled with wonderful items where you can simply show up and discover something that might change the course of your life. This very fact that we are readers and serve readers is what makes us optimistic about the future of bookstores.

That corporate behemoth, Amazon.com, is out with yet another gadget, trying to preserve their market share with a “me too” tablet. Their strategy? Just as they’ve done before, sell it as a loss leader and make money in other ways until they can dominate the market — and then raise prices. In both the short and long-term, there’s a high cost to cheap.

In a society where attention deficit disorder is rapidly becoming the norm, imagine how pop-up ads will contribute to the distractions. To sell below your own cost of materials and overhead, money has to come from somewhere; when you can promise lots of eye-balls, advertisers will be willing to pay. The high cost of cheap is that we sacrifice our quiet reading space.

And imagine the value of data-mining private information about individuals. When a corporation can collect information about what we buy, what we read, how and what we research, and then sells that data to others, our loss of privacy becomes their financial gain. So, the high cost of cheap is giving away intimate details about our lives to people we don’t even know.

From a perspective inside the book industry, we see that the more power Amazon.com holds, the more it will attempt to dictate to publishers everything from price to content of the literature published. The high cost of cheap now extends to one company having a disproportionate amount of power. In other industries, this has resulted in a loss of jobs, choice, and quality.

With companies specializing in technology, more flexibility (not less!) is the goal. When customers are used to being able to navigate and buy freely, there are limitations and inconveniences to exercise that freedom. The high cost of cheap means supporting a corporation that wants to limit navigation for its own advantage.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to believe that after a summer of its fervent opposition to paying state sales taxes (as even the smallest retailers manage to do), this corporate goliath would imagine it to be unscathed. The high cost of cheap is rewarding bad corporate behavior.

Ultimately, our decisions about what we buy and what companies we support is a reflection of our own values — and when, in the long run, cheap becomes too costly.

If Harold Camping’s prophecy came true and the world had ended on May 21st, there wouldn’t be much need to consider the future of indie bookstores. Though we would never pretend to be able to predict how life will unfold for brick-and-mortar retailers, we can pay attention to trends and comment on how these trends will affect our industry.

One of the sessions presented at BookExpo America last month by the Book Industry Study Group focused on today’s “power e-book buyer.” Since we’ve heard from a number of booksellers who feel threatened by the emergence of e-books, as well as a number who are optimistic about the future of retailing in spite of the rapid ascent of e-book sales, we thought it worthwhile to take a closer look at available data and the implications for books in print.

It was no surprise to learn that 66% of those power e-book buyers are women, whose average age is 44 years old and average income is $77,000 per year. And it was also no surprise that about 60% of all titles purchased in e-book format are fiction, that the proprietary e-reading devices belonging to Amazon and Barnes & Noble comprise more than half of the market, and that Amazon has a 65% market share of e-books being purchased. But that’s where the data gets a little interesting.

It looks as if romance is the leader and fastest growing segment of all fiction titles downloaded in e-book format. Some of them are now “interactive,” with features that draw the reader further into the setting and story. Yet for most general trade bookstores, “romance” would hardly be a best-selling section. So it’s difficult to see how this trend would impact an indie bookseller, though it does present an opportunity to cater to that market.

Two of the more interesting nuggets from that session were the findings that customer satisfaction for all e-reader devices was less than 50%, and that the young adult and 20-something age groups were now reporting “digital fatigue.” So what are the implications for storefront retailers?

It suggests that the experience of reading (not to mention the experience of shopping) should be made as much of a priority, if not more, than the physical book. It also suggests that booksellers could appeal to market segments previously ignored, especially by staging some special events catering to specific age groups.

With the growing realization within the publishing community that “print pays the rent,” and with research that shows that the vast majority of readers learn about what to read next from a physical bookstore, it will behoove indies to pay closer attention to the art of retailing, in order to become a showroom for the thousands of new titles being published each year.

We strongly believe that the combination of an attractive and inviting physical space, a thought-filled inventory presented in a variety of formats, along with exceptional customer service and an aggressive calendar of events, will well-serve indie booksellers – and their communities – for many years to come.

Our Friends of the Library Spring Book Sale begins tomorrow. Throughout the year, our little band of volunteers gather to accept donations, sort books, and prepare to fill a gymnasium. Like they do in so many communities, Friends of the Library contributes thousands of dollars to the library budget each year, so everyone wins. The community recycles books and the library receives funds for new materials.

The books that surround us remind us of who we are and what we value.

Seeing the thousands of books available for sale got me thinking about avid readers. With all we’ve gained through our reading, we often don’t see the world in black and white; instead, we realize that life – in all its variety – is far more nuanced. That’s why I’m surprised when I hear smart, educated people wonder out loud whether bookstores and libraries will exist in an age of internet and e-readers. Why wouldn’t both continue to play important roles in our lives? Sure, we want access to the world of information, but we seek solitude and connection too. We need guidance to find those well-written stories and research done with integrity.

If everything resides on a computer or a gadget, what happens when their life spans become obsolete? When the next great innovation renders current technology useless? Remember the 8-track tape and VHS video? I don’t want my books trapped in a microchip that ends up in some trash heap. My books are more important to me than that. Even if I only look at a spine on a bookshelf every once in a while, the fact that it is a part of me and a part of my home matters to me. I’d like to think that the stories I’ve read, the places I’ve traveled through the pages of a book cannot be zapped with one click. Yet I feel fine about closing a file on my computer when I’m done with my work.

So I’ll use technology and I’ll still want printed books in my life and in my home. For people I care about, I’ll continue to buy books because they are such thoughtful, caring gifts. They remind us to slow down, not absorb everything in bits and bytes. They remind us of who we are and what we value. And they remind us to be still, find comfort in silence, learn something new, listen to another voice.

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Friends of the Library spring book sale where it will be evident that books are a part of our material culture. Glancing across the gym with books arranged on tables, I’ll have occasion to remember the greater freedoms of speech, to read, to question, to grow. And I’ll likely find a book or two to add to my collection at home.