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Indie booksellers battle the giants

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Imagine spending a casual winter evening taking an easy browse through a local bookstore: a bookstore with a book club, beverages available and maybe a cat or two for a security force.

That’s a scenario for contentment for many readers who have realized that – while Amazon and eBay are great for locating inexpensive popular and hard-to-find books, and Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million offer bestsellers and extensive magazine racks – they can’t offer the experience of your local bookstore.

That’s one reason why local book stores are growing. In fact, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) has 1,835 members operating from 2,470 locations in 2018 – up from 1,401 members and 1,651 locations in 2009.

Tellin’ Stories

A bookstore experience is just what customers find at Old Fox Books, on Maryland Avenue in Downtown Annapolis. It not only offers new and used books,” said co-owner Janice Holmes, “we’ve also hosted first dates, engagements and weddings.” It also runs a book club and offers a coffee shop.

She said that operating an indie store is “challenging in the world of Amazon, but also rewarding. “In our location, we have to deal with perceptions about parking and convenience,” said Holmes, “but [the national chains] can’t provide the sense of community that is unique to a small bookstore”

“Man is an animal that tells stories,” she said. “While the subtext of Old Fox Books is really about the story, we also appreciate the stories that walk in our door. The one thing we all own is our story and that’s something we should share.”

And due to the atmosphere Old Fox provides, “We’ve become a destination. Owning this place is similar to owning a bar,” Holmes said, “where people make discoveries.”

Shopping Local

Erin Matthews owns Books With A Past, which has sold new and used books, and literary gifts, in Glenwood for 22 years, and added a location in Savage Mill three years ago. She tells a similar tale.

“Operating is a challenge. You’re constantly fighting the ‘I can get it cheaper on Amazon’ crowd, but that’s a myth,” she said, pointing to a “swear jar” that awaits a small contribution from anyone who mentions the corporation’s name. “Also, our customers don’t have to pay shipping and no one steals their packages from their doorstep.”

To Matthews, it comes down to where the customers want to spend their money. “Is that online,” she asked, “or do you want to support local businesses that provide an experience?”

While Savage Mill provides a unique shopping and tourist-type angle, the Glenwood location offers more used books. Books With A Past also offers Young Adult, Literary Fiction and Mystery book clubs and will soon start new groups for Romance and Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge.

Matthews is confident that there is a growing awareness of the impact of buying online. “The public is realizing that it takes dollars and jobs away from the community, so I think that’s led to a resurgence of people shopping local.”

Therefore, she’s optimistic about what’s ahead. Our two locations have meant better economies of scale,” she said. “I won’t rule out the possibility of expansion, but I’m happy with our size.”

So are John and Kathy Byer, proprietors of Second Edition Books, on Dobbin Road, Columbia, which is located next to the local Motor Vehicle Administration office. “That helps us keep business steady,” said John Byer, as does also selling CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, comics, etc. The store also pays cash to sellers and offers store credit, which is the exception in the industry.

“Know that this business is about bargains, treasures and customer service. That’s our mantra,” Byer said, adding, “It’s not easy dealing with pressure from outside sources and libraries that have been doing a better job of integrating with the community.
“However, while Amazon and eBay aren’t going away,” Byer said, “we’re excited as we look ahead.”

Tech Savvy

While observing that independent businesses in general “are dwindling under competition from Amazon and elsewhere, indie retail is doing better than people think,” said Oren Teicher, CEO of the White Plains, N.Y-based American Booksellers Association (ABA).

One reason is “there are tens of millions of Americans who make the decision every day to spend locally,” he said. But beyond that movement, indies have been “far smarter about using technology for point of sales and inventory control systems, the prices for which has come way down. They realize that technology isn’t the enemy. It’s your friend.”

But despite the quantum technical leap, the industry is still about personal interaction. “Discovery takes place far more easily in an indie book store,” said Teicher, “so factor in people’s need for connection outside of a screen and you’ve got a movement. We’re even seeing younger owners and employees.”

And in an arena where shopping has become entertainment after a “panic [several] years ago about digital reading and physical books would go away,” he said, that’s key.

“Owning a retail business isn’t easy, with the competition, rising rents and wages,” said Teicher. “No one is getting rich, but there’s a formula for running a successful store. Physical books are here to stay.”

He added, “Indie bookstores exist in all shapes and sizes. Some owners now say they have to make visiting an experience for clients, but that’s always been the case. They’re more than four walls with bookshelves.”

And indeed, they have to be: A new report from the ABA and Civic Economics (CE) – Prime Numbers: Amazon and American Communities – quantifies the economic cost exacted nationwide via Amazon’s online retail sales.

Reviewing the most recent four years, Prime Numbers documented that in 2018, Amazon and its third-party vendors sold $189 billion of retail goods, across all industries. The report’s analysis also reveals that the results of those sales were 540 million square feet of displaced retail space, 900,000 displaced retail jobs and $5.5-$7 billion in uncollected sales tax for the period of 2014-18; the cumulative loss in uncollected sales tax is estimated to be as high as $22.5 billion.