Independent Bookstores Battle Online Trends

By: Claire Schmidt

A blue flag with the word books on it ripples gently at the entrance of Idlewild Books on 19th street near Union Square, beckoning enthusiastic readers to take a trip around the world. Called Idlewild, for the New York International Airport that was renamed JFK in 1963, Idlewild Books has been highlighting travel guidebooks and international literature since it opened in March 2008. With more than 350 titles available in French alone, Idlewild carries everything from children’s stories, like M. Sasek’s This is London, to Muriel Barbery’s L’élégance du Hérisson. The store is truly alive as over 30 customers enter the store in just a half hour, ready to peruse the polished pine shelves lined with books from across the globe. It is no surprise that this hidden treasure has been able to maintain such a steady following, even as most other big box bookstores struggle to stay in business.

“All bookstores, ours included, have to focus on what they do best,” says David Del Vecchio, owner of Idlewild Books. “It’s important to cultivate a niche.” With the rapid transformation of the bookselling industry, it is hard to imagine how any independent bookstore could be successful. The reading habits of consumers have changed with the shift to buying books online. Even mass merchandising bookstores are going out of business; Borders filed for bankruptcy and is planning to close down 200 of its underperforming stores by the end of April, and Barnes and Noble closed 18 of their stores in 2010 after a 4.5 percent decrease in the store’s sales, according to the company’s annual report. However, many independent bookstores offer something that big chain companies do not; the specialization in a particular type of book and a community experience could be key to a bookstore’s success, enabling niche bookstores to survive when larger stores may not.

As an independent business, Idlewild Books has been able to succeed in the changing industry by focusing on travel guidebooks and foreign novels that most other stores just do not offer. This is one of the strengths of small companies. “Independent businesses become very creative about what they sell in the store and how they sell it,” says Meg Smith, the spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association, a nonprofit trade association founded to support the interests of independent booksellers. “The independents are really going to be the ones that survive because they can change on the dime.”

However, not all bookstores have been so lucky, especially the ones that carry a wider selection of topics.  “In all honestly our business is down,” says Robert Contant, co-owner of St. Mark’s Bookshop, a shop that provides books on cultural theory, photography, graphic design, literature, and politics among other types. “The book business on the whole is going through a transition period with electronic media and it’s certainly had an effect.”

Perhaps the biggest competition of the bookstore industry is online books. Consumers are now more conscious of the price of books and have turned to Amazon.com for the lowest prices. In 2009, the company’s media sales rose by 11 percent, according to the IBIS World industry report for bookstores in the United States. Many people have also shifted from buying hardcover books to buying the significantly cheaper alternative, paperbacks.

Part of the reason that Idlewild Books has been so successful is because most of their merchandise is not available in an electronic format. “We carry a lot of literature in translation, and they are not in e-format yet,” says Del Vecchio, who also admits that since they never had a big hardcover book selection, their sales have not been as affected in that way.

The future is hopeful for independent bookstores, especially those that have found a particular type of book to concentrate on. “At the moment we are modestly ahead of the previous year,” says Matt Sartwell, of Kitchen Arts and Letters, a bookstore that has specialized in the culinary arts for the past 27 years.

In addition there were thirty new independent bookstores that opened in 2010 across the country and joined the American Booksellers Association. While the number of independent stores that closed in the past year is unknown, this modest increase in membership is a good sign, according to Smith.

It is also important for small bookstores to maintain a close tie to their communities. “The very core of what an independent bookstore does is this relationship that it has with a customer,” says Smith.

It is this customer-employee interaction that often makes the experience of walking into a bookstore more rewarding than shopping online. “When people are going to pay money for a book, they are looking for more than just a recipe,” says Sartwell. “They are looking for a point of view; they are looking for someone who will have something to say.”

Walking into Idlewild Books is definitely an experience all its own. A Spanish melody floats from the speakers surrounding the shoppers. If you close your eyes to listen you will be transported to Spain, sipping a café con leche on the beaches of Barcelona. “It’s the best place to flip through books and see what interests you,” says customer Rebecca Michelson, of the travel themed store. “You can just walk in there not knowing what you want and walk out with a new book.”

Independents like Idlewild Books are hoping that readers are not ready to give up the ability to browse. “It’s a pleasurable thing to be able to walk through a thousand square foot bookstore and be able to feel like you are walking through every part of the world,” states Del Vecchio.

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