During the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in New Orleans last month, there were high spirits — even before the first cocktail party. From the moment booksellers began arriving in the city that embodies strength and resilience, everyone began comparing notes: 2011 finished with a roar, some stores up as much as 48% in sales over 2010.

Watchung Booksellers

Watchung Booksellers, a successful neighborhood bookstore capitalizes on great service, an amazing inventory, and an inviting atmosphere

After the demise of the Borders chain, many readers sought out local indie bookstores. The American Express Small Business Saturday promotion helped educate cardholders about the value of shopping locally. And, physical books make wonderful gifts, especially when recommended by a savvy bookseller for that hard-to-please relative. All of these factors helped fuel the positive momentum.

During the conference, even more reasons for optimism surfaced. The new Verso Advertising survey indicated that while e-books have gained popularity, about 50% of people have no interest in reading on an electronic device. For avid readers who have adopted e-reading, the survey showed that they plan to purchase the same number of print books as electronic books this year. Books are a part of our material culture and the demand for printed books is not going away.

Publishers were at the convention with heart-felt support. From small presses to large publishing houses, representatives were there to give us the inside scoop on debut authors and exciting new books. It’s the glue that binds us and what gives indie booksellers an incredibly important role in the world of books. Indie booksellers, because of their passionate recommendations – that are not predicated on any computer-generated algorithm – help introduce new authors and break-out works. Without indies, we might only get to see those titles now stacked high on the floor at the warehouse clubs, or be able to sort through the kazillions of e-books online, few of which get much marketing support due to the quality of the writing.

Indie booksellers are now talking of expanding the number of locations, redesigning their current stores, and expanding events. They are changing the complexion of their inventories, spotlighting wonderful books and other fun items that reinforce the community’s character and make it fun to come to the bookstore to shop. It’s been a long haul, but people finally seem to be over the fascination with big box stores. They understand the importance of strengthening local economies, and want to find peace, comfort, and a truly good read from their locally owned bookstore.

Now that the political season is heating up, we have to wonder how we’ll ever be able to get out of the financial mess that’s affecting the entire world. What will the new economy look like and who will help create it?

America has always been a land of entrepreneurs with a “can-do” attitude. Just last week, we visited Athens, Georgia to help put the finishing touches on a new indie bookstore, founded by one of the country’s youngest bookstore entrepreneurs. We first met Janet Geddis at BookExpo in 2009 and later that year, she attended our five-day intensive workshop retreat on owning a bookstore. Attentive every moment, she took copious notes, engaged in “group think” with the class, and asked smart, timely questions about the industry.

Indie Bookstore Grand Opening

The Avid Reader opens in Athens, Georgia this week.

Her greatest challenge was the lack of start-up capital. Without it, how would Janet get this business off the ground? We knew she had the intelligence and passion to create something wonderful if she could only find the funds. What has subsequently unfolded in Athens is a story we hope to see played out in communities everywhere.

Janet relied on her personal network and social media to share her dreams with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and the local press. With an already strong ‘Shop Local’ movement, a younger and educated demographic from the University of Georgia, and an interest in grass-roots efforts, Janet was cultivating fertile ground and kept widening her network, winning fans along the way.

She started small, launching a web store to get going, showing up at festivals and other gatherings with a table to sell used books, created fund-raising events around her photographic art. She bartered, sent out ‘wish lists’ of things she needed to get the store open. She was never reluctant to ask for the help she needed. And she was determined to realize her dream – even when a bookseller from another town suddenly opened (and just as suddenly, closed).

This week, Janet will officially open Avid Bookshop in a quaint historic neighborhood of young families, professors, and students. A large replica of a colorful hot air balloon brightens the children’s room, courtesy of an artist friend. The fiction section has been personally selected by Janet and when chatting with her new staff, Tom, Sonia, and Rachel, you can foretell they will sell an amazing amount of fiction because of their passion for debut authors and taste for masterful writing. There’s a display of hand-made books created by another local artist.

It literally took a village to create an indie bookstore, and a young entrepreneur made it all happen. When we create a new economy with integrity and connection, we’re headed in the right direction — and a new generation of entrepreneurs, just like Janet, will lead the way.

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.

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.

It comes as no surprise to those of us in the book business that the media have devoted so much time and attention to e-readers this holiday season. After all, it’s the gadget du jour. No matter where you look, the stories appear the same … touting the multiple features, low cost, and ease of buying e-books. Why ruin a story with a strong dose of reality when it will only feel like a bucket of ice water or sound like sour grapes?

The book industry has long advocated and even embraced new formats. When paperbacks were introduced, reading became more affordable. Audio books allowed content to be enjoyed while driving or cooking and made it so much easier for the sight-impaired. E-books may be the latest format, but their emergence has opened up issues of privacy, censorship, market share, and the true costs of all that goes into publishing a book, as well as the value of an author’s intellectual property.

History has shown that Americans cherish their privacy and are careful to protect it. Yet technology is already encroaching on this coveted right, now that data mining goes beyond planting ‘cookies’ on our computers. Search Amazon.com for a book on a specific topic and you will likely find e-mail advertisements in your in-box from other companies — even if you only searched for the book and didn’t buy it.

For the most part, indie booksellers take the position that a customer’s request for a particular book should not be judged. If it’s available, they will offer to get a copy for you, even if they don’t like the book, don’t respect its premise, or agree with the ideology. In the last couple of years, Amazon.com removed listings of books from Macmillan, Ten Speed Press, and Melville House when the publishers would not agree to its terms. (Publishers felt the discount being requested was unreasonably steep.) Just like that – zap – books were censored not for content, but for demands for a higher than average profit margin.

Then there’s a question about the accuracy and integrity of industry data on e-book sales. For example, Amazon.com suggests that one way to meet their minimum order requirement for free shipping is to add cheap e-books from the public domain to your order. Since these materials don’t pay royalties and cost less than new books by living authors, adding a cheap e-book to an order still counts as one more e-book sold. We know that sales of e-books have soared, and that only adds to the media intrigue. Few know that the number is artificially inflated.

When it comes to e-book pricing, it seems that we’re in a situation where the tail is wagging the dog. Amazon.com has successfully established the average retail price of an e-book at $9.99, but how long can they plan on losing money on each new e-book sold? Not many know that the average cost to Amazon.com – even with a generous discount – is several dollars more per e-book than the sale price. From the onset, Amazon chose this pricing strategy to establish market dominance; and once that happens, prices will go up. Remember all those deep discounts the big box bookstores once offered when they were establishing stores in new markets? They eventually disappeared.

In several European countries, the law is such that companies can only discount up to 5 percent, which allows more diversity in the business community. That’s why you can travel throughout Europe and see town squares filled with independent shops and cafes. In the United States, there’s no such regulation and no limit to discounting. Corporations are better able to sustain losses until they have reached market dominance. Rarely will you find an independent business owner able or even willing to conduct business in this manner.

Technology may have improved our lives in countless ways, but it can have a negative impact as well. Issues of privacy and censorship, sustainable local communities with healthy economies, the survival of small independent business, and the vibrancy of Main Street America … all are at stake due to some of the business practices being used right now by those who have other interests than books and are not primarily devoted to the world of ideas. When profits are derived from the collection and sales of consumer data and unreasonable pricing demands, rather than a commitment to the promotion of books and reading, consumers aren’t getting the full story. It’s a teaching moment the media is missing.