Small is big
By Rosemary Zurlo-Cuva
Long before Borders closed its doors last summer, the accepted wisdom was that bookstores — and even the printed book — were well on their way to extinction. Bricks-and-mortar booksellers couldn’t compete amid online discounting, the rise of e-books and the economic downturn, the thinking went. There was also a widely touted belief that an increasingly distracted populace no longer takes the time to read books.
And yet in spite of the general forecast, stories keep popping up that offer a different picture. In August, the Association of American Publishers reported that publishers’ net sales were up 5.6% over the period 2008-10. According to the American Booksellers Association, over 65 independent bookstores have opened in the last two years, five of them in Wisconsin. One of those Wisconsin stores, the Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, has been profitable in its first two years, and its owner, Daniel Goldin, is credited with supplying valuable advice to author Ann Patchett as she prepared to open her own independent bookstore in Nashville last November.
Closer to home, A Room of One’s Own, the downtown independent founded in 1975, announced that it would be merging with Avol’s and effectively doubling its square footage by moving this summer into the Gorham Street storefront once held by Canterbury Booksellers. More recently, manager and co-owner Sandi Torkildson reported that sales in the last year had exceeded expectations, thanks in part to a request that went out to the store’s patrons to pledge to buy five more books at the store during this calendar year.
While the picture for booksellers is still not exactly rosy, there is growing evidence that smart, adaptable independent booksellers like Goldin and Torkildson may continue to find enough customers to stay afloat.
Madisonians Conor and Molly Moran believe that a boom of independent openings is on the horizon. They’ve been exploring the viability of opening a bookstore here and have developed confidence that it could work. (They are careful not to say yet just when they might open their store, or where.)
Acknowledging that chain bookselling operations have not been able to compete very well in the current market, Conor points to Boswell Book Company’s success in Milwaukee, where the multi-store Schwartz’s had failed. In addition, he says, “Madison is a good place for indies because of its large community of avid readers and a strong sentiment toward buying local.”
Before returning to Madison in 2010, the Morans lived for three years in Washington, D.C., where Conor was a manager and assistant events coordinator at longtime independent Politics & Prose.
“They were thriving” Conor says, and sales actually increased over the period of his tenure there. With events almost every night, he and Molly saw in practice that an aggressive and well-organized events strategy can enhance not only sales, but patron loyalty.
“Local bookstores provide community space,” Conor asserts, “a public forum in which to meet and share ideas.” He adds that good booksellers must make themselves experts at editing choices with the community in mind, highlighting those titles that will be of interest to their specific clientele, and offering events that cross a wide range of topics.
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