The True Value of Indie Bookstores: Let’s Do the Numbers

Independent Book Store Day is coming — when’s the last time you shopped at one? Many readers count themselves as supporters but might still be in the pandemic habit of ordering via an app or downloading to an e-reader. With this in mind, allow me to suggest we spend more of our hard-earned dollars at indie bookstores.

To make my case, I will not tell you how excited I get walking into an indie shop with its quirky displays of new releases plus books 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.

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 study. I should note Women & Children First continues to serve readers with limited indoor shopping because of the virus.

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 4,100 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 there’s no distress at Amazon, at least among management and shareholders. The largest retailer outside China invested heavily in speedy order fulfillment, making it a consumer favorite even before the pandemic buying spree. Still, those concerned about workers’ rights have long criticized the company’s treatment of employees. In January, 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, since every day is Amazon Day, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday, April 30, 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, they take their profits or wages and spend much of it in their community.

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 Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, 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 business. But as long as everyone plays fair, there should be room in the local economy for all: authors, bookstores — and yes, even Amazon.

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