You hear it every day--people lamenting the fact that their little local bookstore has closed its doors. Between the economy in general and the business climate in the world of publishing and book retailing, it's no wonder the smaller chains have collapsed. Who is going to go to a store where the prices are higher and the selection is more limited when they can order on-line or go to a huge retailer and have a book either immediately or delivered to their porch in a couple days? The fact is, your average reader isn't thinking about how the author is making no money when he buys a book at a steep on-line discount. He's just excited to get a deal on the book he wants.
How are they doing it? I believe our little store, and the many others around the country that holding their own in the shadow of Barnes and Noble, are doing a few things to generate business.
They make themselves a social destination.
The indy book stores I've been may have coffee bars, but the atmosphere in these places is so different than other coffee chains, even just around the corner. People who love books seem to be heading to these bookstores to interact, not to pop their ear buds in and huddle down behind a screen. Sure, customers might have a book or ereader in one hand and a coffee in the other, but it seems to me folks are using the coffee shop zones of the indy books store as a place to meet and discuss. They seem as though they've become the readers modern-day tavern, if you will. I believe the smaller, more intimate setting of the indy store as opposed to your typical Barnes and Noble encourages connection with other people. In a huge store, you can drift in, remain anonymous, and drift out, much like you can when you go to a huge church. In the indy store, people see you are there, and it just seems to attract a customer with a different intent.
They appeal to folks who are advocates of the value of literature and reading
Indy book stores can--and must--be more selective about what they keep on the shelves, and the folks I've talked to who run them don't tend to give a hoot about what's big if it technically stinks. Sure, in the interest of staying afloat, they'll likely have a display of the latest big thing, but they don't seem to stack all their shelves deep with a gazillion copies of that book, bumping other lesser-known work into low-shelf oblivion.
As much as those who work for big corporations may honestly strive to hep customers feel like the company cares about each customer as an individual, there's a difference when you walk into a store with an inquiry and someone handles it personally, rather than passing the request into the machine. For example, I was heading into my local store to ask about book consignment (something big chains don't typically have the flexibility to do) and the manager said "I will look at your book and make sure it gets placed in the optimum spots to generate sales. We may move it around a bit." She didn't hand me a form. She didn't refer me to an on-line inquiry form. She sincerely seemed interested in making the realtionship benefit us both. (And it didn't hurt that she was into fantasy!)
From a customer standpoint, there's something of a "Cheers" factor to smaller businesses, where the employees learn who you are, what you like, and (if they are good business people) act happy to see you.
All in all, I am looking forward to developing a relationship with my local indy store. I'm not necessarily anti-corporation, but it does warm my heart to see small ventures succeed. For me, such success represents people pursuing their dreams and seeing them realized, and who can't get excited about that?