5 Lessons SMB Owners Can Learn from Indie Bookstores

Many indie bookstores have survived despite ebooks and Amazon. Here's what other retailers can learn from them.
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Despite changes in their markets, many indie bookstores remain profitable. Take tips from these bookstores and make sure your business can adapt as well. (Photo: Strand Books)
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“We all know the importance of keeping small stores open in our neighborhoods, creating local jobs and making sure the sales tax that is collected stays in our communities.” -Whitney Hu (Photo: Whitney Hu)

For all the talk of the death of books and the end of the bookstore, independent stores are far from being on life support. Membership in the American Booksellers Association increased by 25 percent from 2009 to 2015, and sales in the first half of 2016 were up 6.1 percent compared to the same period of 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We experienced 10 percent growth last year and 30,000 more visitors,” said Whitney Hu, communications and marketing director at Strand Books, an 89-year-old store in New York City. “We had our strongest year by far last year.”

Small businesses in other industries also face changing shopping habits and competition from online retailers. Here are five strategies they can borrow from booksellers to prosper.

Focus on customer service

Bookstores have done well in part by offering a different experience than their online competitors.

“People ask me how I compete with online bookselling, and the answer is that I don’t,” said Lexi Beach, owner of Astoria Bookshop, a three-year-old store in Astoria, New York. Instead of trying to chase the customers who buy books online, Beach said, she focused her business model on offering experiences that can happen only in brick-and-mortar locations.

She carries a carefully curated inventory (miniscule in comparison to what you can find online) and offers special orders for book clubs and customers who can’t find what they’re looking for when they come in. Because of her shop’s small size, she and her staff can offer personal recommendations and customer service.

“My staff can make better recommendations than any algorithm ever will,” she said.

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“Even the events that are not directly about selling a particular book bring in a new crowd of people who might not have been to the bookshop before, and so they grow the customer base,” says Whitney Hu, communications and marketing director at Strand Books. (Photo: Strand Books)

Embrace events

According to Hu, one of the most important ways indie bookstores have been able to grow is by seeing themselves as similar to community centers.

“People are looking to connect with brands,” she said. “In the last 10 or so years, customers have been responding better to store environments and mission statements, and they can be more picky about where they choose to shop.”

Events are a major focus for indie booksellers. They allow stores to differentiate themselves from online competition and also reach people in the local community and beyond. (Apple has even taken a page from their book, adding spaces for talks and events in its redesign.)

Strand hosts talks with authors, musicians and other speakers every night. To attend, can buy either a book or a gift card. The store has held events with area animal shelters. It even rents out its rare book room for parties, weddings and performances.

“Even the events that are not directly about selling a particular book bring in a new crowd of people who might not have been to the bookshop before, and so they grow the customer base,” said Hu. “You have to give people excuses to come in frequently.”

Strand and other booksellers have expanded their reach in their hometowns through other means, too. Some, like Parnassus Books, co-owned by author Ann Patchett, run mobile bookstores. Others sell local coffee and baked goods.

Strand partners with other city retailers. One fruitful collaboration with clothing brand Club Monaco has allowed both brands to sell in the other’s store. Strand also has pop-up kiosk locations that sell a selection of popular books around the city. During the holidays, the store adds more kiosks. “It helps our brand recognition with both New Yorkers and tourists,” Hu said.

Expand to related merchandise

Though Strand Books claims to sell some 18 miles of books in its store, it does not rely solely on those tomes for profit. Other merchandise plays an important role at Strand, Astoria Bookshop and other bookstores.

Strand Books’ canvas tote bags, which are usually priced between $15 and $20 each, are ubiquitous around New York City. Not only do they serve as free advertising, but they also provide a steady stream of revenue for the store, according to Hu.

“For book lovers, it’s like wearing your favorite sports jersey,” she said.

The store also sells everything from Jane Austen action figures to mugs from a nearby dishware shop.

Use your store design to attract customers

Hu said customers often mention that they discovered the store through social media posts with images of store displays and the stacks.

During the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week every year, one section of the store becomes a display for books that are frequently challenged by governments and schools. Rows of rare books also get a lot of attention online.

Hu she sees about about 10 Instagram posts on its feed every hour, tagged with the store’s location. “I would say the store markets itself,” she said.

Window displays nod to current trends and change every three to four weeks. They’ve had “Read Books and Chill”-themed windows at the height of the “Netflix and Chill” meme, and currently the windows are related to pumpkin spice latte season.

Beach said she also cultivates a photogenic store for social media. When she was starting off she also hired a bookstore design consultant to help her figure out the best layout for her products — a move that has paid off. “It was an excellent use of money,” she said. “Kids who come in for the first time often know instinctively where they will find books for them, just because of the color palette in the children’s section.”

Hu said the team at Strand is also constantly analyzing where customers are going in the store and which displays are working. “Even though we’re a bookstore, we run by numbers,” she said. “We know what books people want and where they will find them in the store.”

Embrace fellow small businesses

Fostering relationships with other small business owners often pays off. Both Hu and Beach have turned to fellow indie booksellers for advice, help and networking. Hu said she goes on tours of other stores and is in talks with other are sellers about best practices and frustrations in the business.

Beach said she has personally felt the positive effects of initiatives like Small Business Saturday and other awareness-raising campaigns for shopping small. So she practices what she preaches.

“I do my best to shop locally, both for personal necessities and business purposes. We all know the importance of keeping small stores open in our neighborhoods, creating local jobs and making sure the sales tax that is collected stays in our communities.”

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