What a fascinating time … and how refreshing it is to see ‘Local’ become fashionable. From Sarasota, FL to Rapid City, SD and Nantucket, MA to Bainbridge Island, WA, ‘Shop Local’ initiatives are moving full steam ahead, where residents want fewer national chains and more local flavor.

Was this predictable? Maybe in part. The last three decades brought us a deluge of stores and shopping centers that began to look the same. Perfectly coiffed with the same merchandise, their appeal didn’t have staying power. When the economy softened, corporate decisions, meant to preserve profits and shareholder investments, resulted in dark storefronts all across the country.

Bookstores sponsor events

Bookstores draw the right clientele

And who survived? The tenacious, spirited indie retailers — yes, the “Mom & Pop” stores. Not only have they weathered economic ups and downs (most recently created by the temporary deep discounting offered by the chains when they first moved to town), owners of independent businesses held on because their entire livelihood was on the line. Their commitment to community reached far beyond hitting profit targets – they were in it for the long haul.

Now that hundreds of communities are without bookstores — some driven out by the proliferation of Wall Street financed chains, and now Borders stores closing as a result of the ongoing mismanagement of the revolving executives who ran the company — there are openings for new anchors on Main Street and in retail developments from coast to coast. An independent bookstore is a wise choice to fill an opening, especially if the objective is to draw an upscale demographic.

While some would have us believe that e-books are rendering bookstores obsolete, brick-and-mortar bookstores are still relevant and here’s why. Printed books account for 85% of book sales and research now shows that those who read e-books still value — and buy — printed books. Bookstores are considered gathering places and symbolize an educated community that values learning as a lifelong endeavor. Also, people who read want to know what to read next. Independent booksellers have long been recognized for their genuine passion for books, honesty in making recommendations, and their ability to help publishers launch new writers. In most redevelopment polls, people say they most want a bookstore in their community — and will support it.

To developers and landlords, we suggest you look beyond the media’s obsession with technology to see the opportunities in your own backyard. An indie bookstore will draw the right demographic, hold a long-term commitment to the area, and will contribute to the well-being of the community.

As consumers become more and more mindful that a ‘Local’ focus helps their community, the momentum is continuing to build. To ensure that developments gain (rather than lose) appeal, you need look no further than an indie bookstore. It may require some investment and accommodation on the developer or landlord’s part to get a bookstore open for business, but its presence will generate ongoing tangible results.

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.

Last week we hosted prospective booksellers from across the United States and as far away as the Kingdom of Bahrain to discuss retailing in general, bookselling in particular, and the needs, desires and expectations of today’s reader. Together, we contemplated the future of a book culture and reading lifestyle.

There was consensus that a printed book differs from an e-book, and that the experience of shopping in an indie bookstore is vastly different than shopping online. What would we lose if all book browsing and purchasing in the future took place online? Will book lovers continue to value the sensory experience of a brick-and-mortar bookstore as well as the tangible aspect of holding a printed book?

In the midst of all the fascination with evolving technologies, more and more web sites, and the attention given to e-books, it appears that we’ve given short shrift to the physical experience of walking into a store and discovering a great read.

The artwork on a book’s cover, the quality of the paper and finish, the look of the type font, the added dimension of graphics and illustrations, and sometimes even that “new book smell” all complement the creative ideas inside. Open any one of Robert Sabuda’s pop-up masterpieces and you quickly realize the fine art of bookmaking – that experience can never be replicated on a gadget.

Browsing a bookstore means being surrounded by many ideas and the freedom to express them. Warm and inviting interiors, comfortable chairs, and antique tables invite us to be fully present with timeless stories. All too often, we’re bombarded by the thoughts firing away inside our brains, not to mention constant interruptions and everything and everyone clamoring for our time and attention. Spending time in a bookstore allows us to focus on just one thing at a time — a welcome retreat and escape.

Indie booksellers are known for hosting special events that invite us to think critically, ask questions of authors and other readers, linger to discuss a topic in depth. It’s where we exercise the gift of listening to one another, the ability to consider opposing views, and the magic that happens when ideas converge and evolve. There’s value for individuals and our culture as a whole to have these opportunities for face-to-face conversation and interaction.

We’ll leave for Europe next week (thanks to frequent flyer miles) and look forward to lingering in the cafes and bookshops, savoring the towns and villages that offer character, history, and a sense of place. These times away from the usual landscape allow me to come back to center — with reminders that urban design, architecture, and independent shops speak volumes about quality of life. Small is beautiful. Slow is good. And physically being there for the experience is best of all.