Each day offers an opportunity to learn something new, especially when you open a page of a book. Last night, I read an insight about architecture that sparked thought about the future of bookstores.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

What do you find in a bookstore? Comfort, ideas, stories to connect us with others.

Stephen Mouzon has often been quoted about the mindfulness of architecture and urban design in Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs). Since Mark and I moved to a TND on Amelia Island twelve years ago and now I serve as president of the neighborhood association board, I’ve loved learning about what makes us feel safe and secure and at home. “Contentment” has been a big word for me as I age, and what I value even more as the years go by is beauty, the comforts of home, and holding a book in my hands while the words enrich the moments.

Mouzon, who after years of studying neighborhoods and homes people love, has developed the leading guide to traditional home design, Traditional Construction Patterns: Design & Detail Rules of Thumb. While the last fifty years of home construction has led to McMansions, sprawl, and “hyper” buildings that have been over-designed, Mouzon helps us see how fascination with the machine became the “expression of our age.” Our obsession with technology still seems to cloud our basic human needs … and still does.

So, as BookExpo America kicks off this week in New York, I am reminded with the first time e-readers hit the trade show and how the IT professionals claimed to know the future of the book was to be purely electronic. For the last decade, many of us questioned the prediction and now, it turns out that the bookstore of the future feels a lot like the comforts of bookstores through time. While things in the back room may operate a little differently, life in the store is still thought-filled, personal, and human scale.

While we’ve all gotten used to finding (and buying) things on the web and reading online, there’s a lingering human need for people, places, and material objects in our lives that are on a tangible, knowable, and comfortable human level.

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.

Occupy Amazon.com

Occupy Amazon.com movement gains momentum

When I blasted my friends and neighbors about Amazon.com’s recent promotion, I quickly got responses like “disgusting” and “who would want to support that kind of bad corporate behavior”. One honest response was “I will never buy anything from Amazon.com again.” What’s the fuss? The offer encouraged customers to use the company’s smartphone price check app — essentially, go shop in a store, scan the item you want, and buy from us and you’ll receive a discount of up to $5. Customers are allowed to do this up to three times on Saturday, December 10.

Josie Leavitt, co-owner of The Flying Pig Children’s Bookstore, blogged “Honestly, I’m sick of Amazon. I’m tired of people saying, ‘But it’s so much cheaper than what you can offer.’ Yes, it’s true, the new Steve Jobs book is 49% off at Amazon, and that’s 3 to 6% more than I can buy the book for from the publisher or a wholesaler. So, yes, I’m sick of Amazon acting as its own retail distribution center and getting a far better discount than I can. I’m tired of faithfully paying sales tax and having customers tell me how much they like saving money with Amazon.”

In a letter to Jeff Bezos, Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, stated, “We could call your $5 bounty to app-users a cheesy marketing move and leave it at that. In fact, it is the latest in a series of steps to expand your market at the expense of cities and towns nationwide, stripping them of their unique character and the financial wherewithal to pay for essential needs like schools, fire and police departments, and libraries.”

Is it legal? Absolutely. Is it ethical? Hardly.

In the United States, you can sell below your own cost. You can sell below cost on so many items as long as your stockholders are willing to wait for you to kill off your competition and then hike prices to regain your original profit margins — when you are king of the marketplace. Amazon.com poured millions of dollars fighting states’ efforts to get them to collect sales tax. Main Street shop keepers have never questioned the value of collecting sales tax for the greater good of their communities.

We write and share this not to make anyone feel guilty for owning a Kindle. We simply think it is important for all of us to be aware of what’s happening to make informed choices based on values.

In the book business, we’ve seen relentless pursuit by Amazon.com to own the entire publishing and bookstore business — from printed books to ebooks, publishing to retail. There’s tremendous danger in having one company dominate in any industry, but especially when one represents the world of ideas.

Where you choose to shop makes a statement about who you are. We hope you’ll choose to shop local.

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.

Ever since I heard Eli Pariser talking about his new book, The Filter Bubble (Penguin, May), I have been spooked about the implications of the way we consume information through the Internet.

The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser

The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser

In his book, Pariser discusses the rise of “personalized” search results on the web – when two people conduct the exact same Google search but find radically different results. Pariser, founder of MoveOn.org, and a conservative friend were both interested in the unrest in Egypt earlier this year. They both search Google for “Egypt”, yet his friend sees nothing about riots or an uprising on the first page of search results. The algorithms used by Google and other search engines intuit your interests and provide results consistent with data gathered from your past searches.

The implication? In a world where people are already polarized by wealth and beliefs, the Internet actually furthers the divide. Some would say that this algorithm-driven process is essential, since it narrows an overwhelming amount of information into more manageable chunks. What if the most important information is not what we already know, but what we need to discover and learn?

This is why we remain so committed to a world with independent bookstores and public libraries. By simply going in and wandering around, you expand your world of ideas. Not every book is on the shelves, but the selections are shaped by current events, the time-tested works of history, and new books by promising writers.

Book industry research has indicated that over 40% of people who shop in bookstores discover something they did not specifically come in to buy. Little have we realized how utterly important these venues have been to broadening our horizons instead of narrowing our views.