Walking by Books Inc. in Alameda recently, I felt an urge to duck inside that was irresistible. It was an aimless diversion, motivated simply by the certainty that an independent bookseller I had never visited would still feel as welcoming and familiar as embracing an old friend.
Browsing shelves of new releases, reading little cards bearing handwritten staff reviews, and scanning the calendar of upcoming author events were time-wasting indulgences. Discreetly glancing at fellow booklovers wandering between the tables, I felt a silent communion with these strangers merely because we had gathered at this spot.
While the sensation I experienced could be mistaken for nostalgia, publisher Andy Hunter argues that something far more vital to our culture is happening inside the walls of independent bookstores. These shops play an essential role in enabling a literary society, forging an important emotional and economic bond between readers and writers. That belief has compelled Hunter to pursue the most quixotic of modern-day quests: helping independent bookstores compete against Amazon.
“Independent bookstores are where the culture around books takes root,” says Hunter, who cofounded the book news site Literary Hub, the publishing house Catapult, and the nonprofit Electric Literature. But, he acknowledges, “the conventional wisdom is that if you are going to try to take on Amazon, you are insane.”
Nonetheless, later this year Hunter will launch a beta version of Bookshop, an e-commerce service designed to help independent bookstores peel away some of Amazon’s customers by matching the Goliath’s new book selection, two-day delivery times, and ease of checkout. As on Amazon, consumers will be able to visit the Bookshop website, browse for a title, and place their order with a click. Purchases will be delivered through a partnership with Ingram, the book-printing-and-distribution giant.
The project is the fruit of Hunter’s book industry work, which has given him considerable credibility, and Bookshop is being developed with the encouragement of the American Booksellers Association, which is also an investor. (Disclosure: Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst is an investor as well.)
Bookshop arrives as this nook of retail is demonstrating stubborn resilience. While big book chains crumble, the ABA boasts of a resurgence over the past decade, during which its membership increased to 1,887 (with 2,524 locations) in 2019 from about 1,650 in 2009. The sector faced choppy annual sales figures during the same period, and year-to-date sales (through May) were down by just .5 percent compared with last year. Still, indie bookstores’ staying power is a testament to the vital role they play in their communities. “Every author that tours the country uses bookstores as the place to gather and meet their readers and galvanize their community,” Hunter says.
In a recent interview with the Paris Review, author Lawrence Ferlinghetti echoed this sentiment while recalling his motivations for cofounding San Francisco’s famed City Lights Bookstore. For many years, the bookshop served as a post office box for traveling writers, a public square (thanks to its announcement-filled bulletin board), and a haven for alternative books—which it still is. “From the beginning, when Peter Dean Martin and I started City Lights Bookstore in 1953, our idea was to create a locus for the literary community,” Ferlinghetti said.
While indie bookstores’ communal allure has provided some protection, Amazon continues to rapidly advance, using data and artificial intelligence to match buyers to books and investing heavily in logistics that are moving toward same-day—and in some cases one-hour—delivery. (The online retailer doesn’t break out figures for book sales; it reported an overall revenue of $232.9 billion last year.) Notably, Amazon has also opened at least 18 of its own physical bookstores since 2015.
Indie bookstores can’t stand still, cautions Oren Teicher, chief executive officer of the ABA. “There’s a lot of good news about the independent bookstore environment these days,” he says. “But it would be disingenuous to not understand that the internet has turned everything on its head.”
The ABA already offers IndieCommerce, an e-commerce platform that allows members to create their own slick local sites. Bookshop intends to complement that effort with a national site designed to appeal to Amazon shoppers interested in supporting indie bookstores. At the moment, for instance, many authors feel compelled to promote their books with referral links to Amazon, because those tend to convert into sales at a higher rate than links to local stores.
Bookshop will challenge this by providing referral links that pay higher percentages than Amazon to reward authors, social media influencers, readers, and anyone else who promotes books via the service. Ten percent of every sale on Bookshop goes to independent bookstores, and bookstores that use affiliate links that result in a sale get 25 percent of that sale. “It’s conscious consumerism,” Hunter says. “It’s something more and more I’m seeing from people, that the choices they are making when they buy something are shaping the world.”
Teicher hopes that Bookshop will help bookstores tap into the localism movement. Indeed, that was part of my joy in stumbling across Books Inc.: not only was it an indie, but it was just two blocks from the apartment where my family and I were spending the summer. Curious about its history, I phoned up its president, Michael Tucker, who is 69 and will step back from running the company’s 10 stores this fall.
In more than 30 years with the company, which traces its history back to 1851, Tucker has witnessed its collapse from 13 stores to 2, a bankruptcy filing, and its comeback. His websites run on IndieCommerce, and he welcomes any e-commerce effort that will bolster that foundation. But for him, the future of Books Inc. rests on the company’s ability to maintain the sense of being a local institution.
“The bookstore business is fantastic,” he says. Other industries “can be cutthroat. But in this business, everyone wants everyone else to succeed. The key is having booksellers who can really be a part of that community.”
Booklover Chris O’Brien is based in Toulouse, France. He wrote about the French reaction to California’s ban on foie gras for Alta, Issue 7.