April 21, 2017

Community sustained indie bookstores through tough times

Manager Will Notte organizes books in the local interest section at Phoenix Book in Rutland on Thursday afternoon. Photo by Jon Olender

Things may be looking up for Vermont independent bookstore owners.

A popular perception in recent years was that indie bookstores were being forgotten due to digital advances and big-box competition. In recent years however, the allure of the cheaper, more convenient option from Amazon, the ease of e-readers, and chain stores such as Barnes & Noble may be losing customers to community culture. Indie bookstores are gaining customers from the human connection they provide.

“That sense of community, that spirit — there’s a shared culture and enjoyment within independent bookshops. That is something that can only be found in an independent bookshop and that is what gets our customers to come back again and again,” said Will Notte, manager at Phoenix Books in Rutland.

Not every bookstore or community has seen growth, yet the national trends are clear, according to Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer at the American Booksellers Association.

“Book sales in independent stores grew almost 8 percent in 2012 in the U.S. over the previous year, and independent bookstores held onto almost all those gains in 2013. In 2014, for 47 out of 52 weeks, unit sales of books were up over the year before; and in 2015, sales in the indie bookstore channel were up a little more than 10 percent,” Cullen said.

According to the ABA, a nonprofit trade advocacy group, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20 percent since the depths of the recession; from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014. Additionally, the number of independent stores has increased 30 percent since 2009, after seeing approximately 1,000 stores shut down between 2000 and 2007.

Husband-and-wife Michael DeSanto and Renee Reiner, owners of Phoenix Books, purchased Woodstock’s Yankee Bookshop in February of this year. The acquisition makes their fifth location in Vermont, joining Burlington, Chester, Essex and Rutland, and their family of stores now accounts for a significant percentage of Vermont’s few-dozen independently owned bookstores; with just one Barnes & Noble in the state.

“Being new to the area, both (partner) Kristian (Preylowski) and I still have a lot to learn about our community of readers,” said Kari Meutsch, manager of the Yankee Bookshop, who has partnered with DeSanto and Reiner. “As indie bookshop co-owners, we strive to understand what the community wants, the interests of the community. Large bookstores can’t provide this, it’s not just a business, it’s a way of life.”

Through the acquisition, Yankee Bookshop will keep its name intact; and slogan “Vermont’s oldest continuously operated independent bookshop,” according to Meutsch.

The Yankee Bookshop was founded in 1935 and purchased from Susan Morgan, who has operated it since 2001. Woodstock, according to Meutsch, is a town that benefits from year-round tourism and second-home owners. “The bookshop gives them a snapshot of what this community is about and what the interests are,” she said. “This aspect enriches our customers’ experience.”

Through person-to-person marketing and the feel of the pages between the covers, shop owners have said books have a staying power that digital books can’t compete with.

“In the last five years, I have found more and more 20- and 30-something-year-olds browsing my shop. There’s truly something for everyone. I have approximately 60,000 used books,” said Ben Koenig, owner of the Country Bookshop in Plainfield. “I have asked these young folks how they found me and they say, “we look at screens all day, so it’s not relaxing to go home and look at a screen again.”

Community building and the well-read employee are the most important aspects of an indie bookstore’s success. Indie bookstores offer a unique buying or browsing experience — a social hub within a community. All with different offerings and several becoming tech savvy with an online inventory.

“Phoenix Books is a cultural gem in my hometown. Because of our size we are able to have an exclusive, small staff of five who love books; with that being said, there’s a sense of engagement between the customers and staff, we get to know our customers personally and help guide them. We build off of the connection between our customers. Being a central part of our community, we offer discounts to book clubs and we host all sorts of events such as author events,” Notte said.

For a while, that personal touch seemed to be on the way out. Both Borders and Barnes & Noble chains saw enormous growth from 1992-99. During these stores’ peaks, indies fell by the wayside. From 2000-07, approximately 1,000 indies closed their doors, according to Melville House, an independent publisher located in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 2011, however, Borders filed for bankruptcy and each year more Barnes & Noble locations close their doors.

“Indie bookshops understand their community in ways a larger bookstore can’t. Books in large chain locations are sent from their headquarters, which at times is not even within the same state, and don’t know what the community’s wants entail. If you’re smaller, you can change and adapt to your readers’ wants. This has helped indies in unexpected ways,” Meutsch said.

While Amazon’s book sales are still in the lead, in the first quarter of 2016, independent bookstore sales were up approximately 5 percent across the nation, and e-book sales have seen a 4 percent decline, according to the American Booksellers Association.

“Indie bookstores are enjoying a resurgence due to our customers preference to touch and feel the books and being able to speak to real people before purchasing something so personal. Big stores and internet sellers can be impersonal and lack any sense of community; something many people realize they are missing and crave to have back,” said DeSanto.

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