April 29, 2019
Focus on small business

Independent bookstores thrive despite market and technology trends

Photo | Grant Welker
Nicole DiCello opened the independent Bedlam Book Cafe in the autumn, combining her passions for books and the future of reading.

Independent bookstores weathered formidable chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, which were bookstore mainstays at malls across the country, and survived through the expansion of Walmart, Target and other big-box retailers adding more books to their offerings.

Bookstores are making a comeback across the country, with the New York-based American Booksellers Association seeing a 50% rise in the past decade in the number of its member locations.

Independent bookstores haven't gone away.

They pack the calendar with poetry readings, author signings and book clubs, and supplement their bookshelves with cafes and gifts. They rely on the shop-local movement and, perhaps most of all, on the desire of enough bookworms to buy a book from a small, local seller instead of doing so – probably more cheaply – online.

"There always seemed to be something on the horizon that would be something that we wouldn't be able to survive, but the good news is that bookstores are extraordinarily resilient," said Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association.

"Against all odds," Teicher said, "we're still here."

A spiritual thing

Nicole DiCello opened Bedlam Book Cafe in Crompton Place in Worcester last fall, building on a lifelong interest in books.

DiCello, who grew up in the Midwest and moved to Worcester five years ago, faced a career change and was having little success landing a job. Finally, she decided to combine her love for books with offering a place for younger people who she worried wouldn't have the same book discovery opportunities she had.

DiCello wanted a place in Worcester with some character – a destination like the Crompton Place, she said. Fortuitously, a storefront with towering windows, exposed brick and hardwood floors opened up in the renovated mill, and it was hers for the taking.

Photo | Grant Welker
Ancillary income streams like the cafe at Bedlam Book Cafe have been vital to the success of independent bookstores.

Bedlam has a cafe with smoothies, juices and coffees. That creates a draw, but most of the customers who pass through the door are starting a scavenger hunt for used books, wanting to leaf through a book they forgot they wanted to read, or coming upon an old classic.

"That's why I love books," said DiCello, who runs Bedlam with her life partner, Patrick Warner. "They're a spiritual thing."

DiCello compares the return-to-books trend to the slow-food movement: a move toward the opposite of fast food, of prioritizing healthy food with more of a connection to the environment and the sensory enjoyment of eating good food. About once a week, she said with pride, someone will walk through the door, inhale deeply and enjoy the nostalgic scent of a bookstore.

"There's something calming and grounding about reading a book," she said.

DiCello isn't the only one in Central Massachusetts who's bet her business on that lasting desire from enough readers to browse and buy books in person. She's joined by, among others, Annie's Book Stop in Worcester, Bearly Read Books in Sudbury and Enchanted Passage in Sutton.

Debra Horan opened Booklovers' Gourmet in Webster in 1995 – the same year Amazon began selling books. The business may have appeared doomed, but it has survived thanks to a busy calendar of events and what Horan said is a community strongly supporting small businesses.

"When they started selling," Horan said of Amazon, "I think people realized, 'If I want to see these places stay around, I need to support them.'"

More so than when she started, Horan relies on local artwork, greeting cards and other gifts to get people in the door. Often enough, she said, they buy a new or used book, too.

In Westborough, Tatnuck Bookseller moved into a former Stop & Shop space in the Westborough Shopping Center 15 years ago. Tatnuck has broadened its offerings since then to what today is an even mix of books and other merchandise like toys, jewelry and candles, said Charles Napoleon, the store's general manager.

The 32,000-square-foot store has an event space hosting author talks, and sets aside places for people to sit down comfortably to browse a book.

"We've kind of reinvented ourselves," Napoleon said.

50% rise in independent bookstores

Those adjustments have been necessary for independent booksellers to continue to find their niche, said Beth Ineson, the executive director of the Cambridge-based New England Independent Booksellers Association. Author events are critical, as are a social media presence alerting readers to the latest staff recommendations, readings or releases.

"It has a profound impact on the stores' bottom lines: the number of events they're able to have," Ineson said. "Events are extremely important."

Bookstores are making a comeback across the country, with the New York-based American Booksellers Association seeing a 50% rise in the past decade in the number of its member locations.

Teicher, the association CEO, attributed that rebound to not only a shop-local movement but to growing research showing how often readers discover books not through scrolling online but through browsing bookshelves in a store. Technology has helped – not just threaten – small bookstores, he said, thanks to point-of-sale, payroll and accounting software making running a small business a bit easier than in the past.

"A lot of folks are surprised to hear this, and it's kind of contrary to the widely held view that indie bookstores were squashed by big box stores and now by Amazon," Teicher said. "There's no single thing that has happened that has turned things around."

Despite independent bookstores' comeback, worries about ongoing survival haven't dissipated. After all, wage and property tax costs are always a factor, along with the same whims of consumers affecting all kinds of retail.

"It's still a struggle," said Ineson, who took over the New England Independent Booksellers Association after a long career in publishing. "They continue to have to struggle every day."

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