Independent booksellers account for about 10% of the total volume of sales of books in the United States. Though merely a rough estimate, it is one that publishers and media alike often cite to define the role that businesses like mine play in the retail book trade. I do not foresee a dramatic change in that market share either up or down in the coming years. However, my small minority of independent colleagues play a far greater role in the industry than many acknowledge.
Our approach is built on relationships. We not only know the product, we take the time to know our customer. Repeat and referral business is an important part of the equation. We want customers to return, and we want them to recommend our bookstore to other readers. The description of our business model can be applied to nearly every retail product category. It would seem so simple to replicate the approach on a massive scale, incorporate advanced technology and distribution, undercut pricing, and drive businesses like independent bookstores into the history books. Indeed, we have faced many such competitive challenges over the last two decades. Yet we continue to maintain a base of satisfied customers. While several high-profile stores have closed in recent years, many new ones have opened. The number of independent booksellers is growing, and the explanation is very simple.
Independent booksellers sell books. What I recognize and respect is that a customer is committing a significant amount of time to reading a book. Almost every book that I ring up for a customer has been hand picked. A book still represents one of the best entertainment values around, but the maximum return for the customer comes from someone making sure that this is the best book for them. This is the role of the independent bookseller: matching the wants and needs of the customer with the best possible option.
Why isn't this easily replaced with technology? Many could argue that online retailers offer a far more sophisticated experience that does exactly the same thing. On the contrary, online offers a simulation of the experience. Worse, online adds layer upon layer of noise to an otherwise simple one-on-one conversation. Online it is not just the sale of a one book, it is every other related product or book the computer can think of. It means that the transaction data is automatically passed to every other corporate entity that might be able to market or monetize your purchase. This is not science fiction, it is the necessary operating strategy of online retail. Our clientele expect something different.
My customers can ask me "will I like this?" knowing that I will not hesitate to say "no, but you might like this." In the world of the other 90% of book volume, talking customers out of making purchases would probably get an employee fired. It is the direct honesty of my transactions that keeps people coming back to me for more. Full disclosure: I do make mistakes, after all I am human.
Time after time though, my customers say "do that again." Time is such a precious commodity. If you are going to invest yours in reading a book, talk to a specialist. It might just be worth the money.