Indie Bookstores Matter — Here’s Why
Independent Book Store Day will soon mark its 10th anniversary — when’s the last time you shopped indie? Many readers count themselves as supporters but still buy books from national chains or Amazon, a global powerhouse. Hey, I get it: Large corporations can afford to charge less in order to gain market share. Still, I’ll keep suggesting that we shift our focus away from the lowest price to preserve our local purveyors of knowledge.
To make my case, I will not tell you how excited I get walking into an indie bookshop with its quirky displays of new releases plus works by local authors. I won’t regale you with funny anecdotes starring eccentric but always knowledgeable bookstore owners and staff. Last but not least, I won’t describe that dopamine hit I get every time I buy local and stick it to a distant corporation where phrases like “vertical integration” and “leveraged buyout” are quickly followed by “maximizing stakeholder value.”
At least not today. No, to determine the true value of indie bookstores, I’ll leave out words and focus on numbers. And the figures tell a compelling story.
When you buy books from an indie shop, 29% of your money gets recirculated into the local economy. That includes labor, profit, purchasing, and donations to non-profits. In comparison, purchases through Amazon generate 5.8% in local impact. The figure for Barnes & Noble is 14%.*
Need more convincing? Let’s zero in on one community. A 2004 study by Civic Economics looked at all the independent retailers in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. While it didn’t focus exclusively on bookstores, at least one indie bookshop — Women & Children First — was included in the research.
The study concluded that of every $100 spent on a locally owned business, $68 remained in the Chicago economy. Of every $100 spent on a chain, only $43 remained. I’ll presume the difference got rolled up into a CEO’s already-gargantuan salary. Hoping this is not too granular, I’ll note the researchers also examined the economic impact generated by each square foot owned by a local business vs. a chain firm. The bottom line? $179 for local, $105 for chains. All this may explain why 70% of Andersonville residents surveyed in the study preferred to shop local.
If you’re lucky enough to have independent businesses in your neighborhood, these numbers provide added incentive to buy from them. And if you live near one of the 1,900 indie bookstores** in the U.S., it clearly benefits you to support the indie shop as opposed to the nation’s largest bookstore chain, Barnes & Noble. Beginning as an independent store in 1886, B&N is now owned by Elliott Management Corporation, a private equity firm/hedge fund that buys “distressed securities.”
Meanwhile, at Amazon, distress is the domain of workers — 18,000 of them — who lost their jobs in the company’s post-pandemic course correction. The move by the largest retailer outside China seems to be pleasing stockholders. But those concerned about workers’ rights have long criticized the company’s treatment of employees. In 2021, their complaints were validated when federal regulators found Amazon interfered with a push to unionize one of its warehouses in Alabama.
Other than noting the convenience of the Kindle, I wish I could be kinder to the spawn of Jeff Bezos. Perhaps I will if collective bargaining makes the company more accountable. And to authors using Amazon’s publishing services: You are correct to say you’re not at fault. You have a right to publish on any platform, and if you’re happy with your book and the royalties they pay, more power to you. Nevertheless, we must address the indisputable fact that every day is Amazon Day. So I hope you’ll join me in celebrating Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday, April 29, by visiting an indie shop. Think of it as a simple thank you for all their owners and staff do, such as making you feel welcome, asking if you want a coffee, and — of course — recommending books. When the day ends, you know where the bulk of their profits and wages will be spent.
No guarantees, but they might be willing to sell your book on consignment and perhaps invite you to read at one of their author events. As for yours truly, I’ll celebrate at Harvey’s Tales in Geneva, IL, reading from and signing copies of my novel. In one of life’s great ironies, I’m trying to decide if it would be cheaper to order copies from my publisher and pay for shipping or use my Prime discount which includes free shipping. Let’s keep that between us. After all, writers — like indie shop owners — make daily decisions that affect their bottom line. But as long as everyone plays fair, there should be room in the local economy for all: authors, bookstores — and yes, even Amazon.
* Sources: The American Booksellers Association 2021 abacus survey of members; 2017 Economic Census; 2020 10-K; 2021 analysis by Civic Economics
** American Booksellers Association, May 2021