business news in context, analysis with attitude

Good piece in the New York Times this weekend about how "more than 300 new independent bookstores … have sprouted across the United States in the past couple of years, in a surprising and welcome revival after an early pandemic slump. And as the number of stores has grown, the book selling business — traditionally overwhelmingly white — has also become more much more diverse."

The Times writes:  "Two years ago, the future of independent book selling looked bleak. As the coronavirus forced retailers to shut down, hundreds of small booksellers around the United States seemed doomed. Bookstore sales fell nearly 30 percent in 2020, U.S. Census Bureau data showed. The publishing industry was braced for a blow to its retail ecosystem, one that could permanently reshape the way readers discover and buy books.

"Instead, something unexpected happened: Small booksellers not only survived the pandemic, but many are thriving … The association now has 2,023 member stores in 2,561 locations, up from 1,689 in early July of 2020. Some of the growth reflects the renewal of memberships by existing stores that put off doing it last year amid the uncertainly caused by the pandemic. But there has also been a sharp and sustained rise in new bookshops, and more than 200 additional stores are preparing to open in the next year or two."

Many of the new stores that opened, the Times writes, "during the pandemic are run by nonwhite booksellers, among them The Salt Eaters Bookshop in Inglewood, Calif., which specializes in books by and about Black women, girls and nonbinary people; the Libros Bookmobile, a Latina-owned mobile bookstore in a converted school bus in Taylor, Texas, which stocks fiction in Spanish and English, and Reader’s Block, a Black-owned bookshop in Stratford, Connecticut … The new crop of bookstores may also be a byproduct of broader pandemic-driven shifts in the economy as people re-evaluated their lives and changed professions, and retail spaces became more affordable. Government assistance to small businesses helped many bookstores weather the shutdown, while stimulus checks enabled some people to leave their jobs and start new businesses."

And, some broader context:

"The rapid growth of physical bookshops is especially surprising at a time when brick and mortar stores face crushing competition from Amazon and other online retailers. Many bookstore owners are also confronting new uncertainty from a grim outlook for the overall economy — labor shortages, supply chain snafus, rising rents and interest rates, higher costs of goods, and a looming recession that could drive down consumer spending.

"But one unexpected outcome of the pandemic was the way many communities rallied around their local bookstores in a time of crisis. When in-person shopping plummeted during the shutdown, bookstores rapidly scaled up their online sales operations, and found other ways to keep their customers, including curbside pickup, home delivery, outdoor pop-up stores and bookmobiles. Readers, it turned out, were eager for print books during the pandemic, and the spike in sales continued into 2021, when publishers sold nearly 827 million print books, an increase of roughly 10 percent over 2020, according to NPD BookScan."

KC's View:

I think there is a strong lesson here for every independent retailer - it increases your likelihood of success if your value proposition has some degree of specificity in its differentiation.  

I have a local independent bookstore in my town, but it is sort of non-specific in its approach - there is no point of view, no real differential advantage other than the fact that it is local.  I think stores need more than that.

Quite frankly, this Times story also is a vivid example of why diversity matters - it allows retailers to understand and be in touch with communities that they previously ignored.  This is good business.

Ironically, the Times had another book-themed story over the weekend about how, "as highly visible and politicized book bans have exploded across the country, librarians — accustomed to being seen as dedicated public servants in their communities — have found themselves on the front lines of an acrimonious culture war, with their careers and their personal reputations at risk.

"They have been labeled pedophiles on social media, called out by local politicians and reported to law enforcement officials. Some librarians have quit after being harassed online. Others have been fired for refusing to remove books from circulation…"

First of all, I am appalled and offended by book bans;  they are inherently un-American.  And the idea that librarians are being vilified by some people in some communities would be almost beyond belief, if in the current moment it did not seem so believable.

But isn't it interesting how, even as in one corner of the culture there are efforts to restrict the ideas and books to which people have access (laughable on the face of it in an Internet-enabled world), in another corner, where independent retailers live, greater diversity and availability are thriving.

Remember, I did a FaceTime video earlier this year about how Barnes & Noble responded to the book bans occurring around the country by creating sections in its stores specifically for banned books, plus a page on its website with an even more extensive selection.

There is a line in the Times story:  "Many communities rallied around their local bookstores in a time of crisis."  One crisis was the pandemic.  But another crisis is the attempt to tamp down on intellectual engagement with ideas that make us nervous or uncomfortable.

One thing.  I said above it is laughable to try to restrict ideas and books in an Internet-enabled world, but at least one Texas state legislator has said that he wants to ban young people from using social media until they are 18 years old.  (Good luck with that.)  I think social media companies have to be more responsible, and I have no problem with nuanced regulation, but in a world where every kid has a smartphone, keeping them off social media could be a challenge.  Unless, of course, the next step is to stop them from having smartphones. And maybe opening packages from Amazon at the post office to make sure banned books aren't being sent to communities with book bans.