First is was just the business news, now, the general media is covering the struggles of the retail sector. Retailers are struggling. Stories of corporate restructuring and store closings and the impact on employment figures have, for good reason, caused increasing alarm.

It’s interesting that we have one major shift happening today: online shopping has become so easy that people are open to shopping for all kinds of products, including groceries.

Unless there is some obvious benefit to shopping at a bricks-and-mortar store, shopping online can be seen as a way to save time. Need something? Place the order and expect it will be at your doorstep almost momentarily.

Technology makes shopping efficient and many appreciate not having to use time to perform the mundane duties of daily life.

The Boulder Bookstore is known as a place to come to listen, learn, and be transformed.

The Boulder Bookstore is known as a place to come to listen, learn, and be transformed.

And this is where bookstores are the outliers in this story of retail suffering. Most indie bookstores are doing quite well now that the economy has improved, many booksellers say they are even thriving. At first glance, it appears counter-intuitive or a suspicious attempt by the bookselling industry to show that everything is just fine.

Shopping for books is not like shopping for diapers. Browsing for books is not a routine, mundane “task” for people who love books and savor their time to read. It’s a reward, a treat, a welcome break from noise, screens, interruptions, and distractions.

We have needs and longings that transcend what we can get from a website. Some people will never shop online for groceries since that’s where they experience the pleasure of choosing peaches or selecting from new brands of Italian canned tomatoes. It’s also where they run into their neighbors.

People go to a bookstore for quiet time. They come to be with other people. They come for conversation and sometimes entertainment. Book people come so see what might tickle their curiosity or make them smile. We can sneak it elements of beauty and comfortable seating and you can almost hear the “ahhh…” in response. It feels good. Walk around and the books speak to you. Don’t know what to read next? No worries, just look around. And, we’ll also offer a friendly “hello”, which is also an invitation to let us know what you need.

Booksellers are outliers in this store of the suffering of general retail. The unfolding is nuanced. There is more than one story within the transformation of the retail sector.

We fully expect that more shopping will morph to online activities. And, we fully expect bookstores will continue to do well. So will coffee shops and little cafes. These places fulfill human needs … they help us balance life, refresh and renew, connect, and feel joy. That makes bookstores outliers in today’s retail environment.

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.

Yesterday’s news was filled with stories about shopping during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. The Nightly Business Report examined the results in context of industry trends due to technology and customer expectations.

NBR used the term “blurring” to describe why Black Friday has become more cyber and Cyber Monday has become more physical. First, many consumers are beginning their holiday shopping earlier, this year by November 10, due to promotions and discounting. So Black Friday is just more of the same promotions, less compelling. Cyber Monday has become less important because people no longer need to wait to get to work for access to high-speed internet. They’re buying online any time.

Going into a bookstore, what a great way to get into the holiday spirit.

Going into a bookstore, what a great way to get into the holiday spirit.

With technology supporting the ease of online shopping, what is the future of indie retail? It’s all about the experience.

These elements that create a memorable experience become not just more important, but essential:

Store design that makes you feel good, a space that is uplifting

Displays that are irresistible and offer delightful discovery

Selection that is manageable, interesting, and exudes quality

Fully present and genuinely helpful assistance

And when it comes to gifts, the complementary gift wrapping can be the simple, obvious amenity that seals the deal … the extra something that is beautiful, makes things easy, and is offered in the spirit of joy and shared delight.

Then, add Cider Monday (thanks to bookseller Willard Williams of The Toadstool Bookshops) and the Indies First promotion on Small Business Saturday (thanks to the American Booksellers Association) and the experience just got more rich and personal.

When corporate retailers will continue to blur the shopping experience by deluging the marketplace with special offers, let’s focus on the importance of creating a special experience. The authenticity of the personal and in-peerson has tangible value in a world immersed in faster, cheaper “stuff”.

Publishers Weekly does such a good job in reporting on research that affects the book industry and their recent snapshot on today’s educational e-book market prompted me to think about how the results will affect the sale of print books in bookstores as students become familiar with using e-books.

Children may regard ebooks like parents regard computer screens: work.

Children may regard ebooks like parents regard computer screens: work.

Quoting from the 2014 School Library Journal “Survey of E-book Usage in Schools,” PW notes that 66% of schools across the country currently offer e-books, a 10% increase over the previous year. The portion of children who have read at least one e-book has increased steadily over the last five years.

There are issues galore that the educational community are grappling with: the digital divide; the cost of ongoing investments in technology, tech support, and staff training; selecting and sourcing e-books; plus providing the format that is best for the student and the subject being taught.

If we look to the future, it appears that the number of ways we can read will expand. Being able to read has always been important to success in life, now technical skills will be needed to access information.

It’s interesting that booksellers whose spouses work for Apple and Facebook note that families with roots in the field want their children to read print. They want their children to be well-rounded and able to focus on reading without distraction. Many limit “screen time” and look for ways to maintain a healthy attention span when there are many temptations for digital escape.

What will the students of today prefer as they age? My call is that those who have a balanced diet of reading electronically and reading in print will be proficient in researching and skimming information as needed for tasks. When it comes to reading for fun, turning the pages of a print book will be a break from technology, offering a sensory experience during those cherished moments for quiet adventure.

Each morning, I start my day, like many in the book business, reading Shelf-Awareness. It’s one of the sources we rely on for the latest developments in and about the book business, which authors will be in the media spotlight, and some glimpses of really good new books. The newsletter begins with a quote of the day, sometimes profound, often inspiring, always stirring in some way.

Phinney Books, opened by former Amazon employee Tom Nissley.

Phinney Books, opened by former Amazon employee Tom Nissley.

In today’s “Shelf”, I was especially touched by these words of Tom Nissley, former Amazon.com employee and now owner of the independent bookstore Phinney Books:

“I was a big indie bookstore customer even when I worked at Amazon. There is something irreplaceable about walking into a bookstore and browsing through well-chosen shelves and talking to a bookseller…. Amazon’s algorithms are pretty impressive and useful, but they still can’t do everything a smart and imaginative bookseller can do, especially one that knows you and the books you like to read.”

Tom Nissley, owner of Phinney Books, quoted in a Seattle Times article. Nissley spent a decade working for Amazon, took some time off to be a Jeopardy! champ and recently purchased the former Santoro’s Books in the Phinney Ridge/Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle.
In this digital world, people are searching for a real home base. For many, walking into a bookstore is that very necessary sanctuary. We’re all learning that Google searches and Amazon.com reviews deliver “monetized” results. Pay to play.
How refreshing to see that in a capitalist society, one business sector still is devoted to offering authentic reviews and chooses only the products that are comfortable to recommend.

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.

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.

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.

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.