Surprise Ending

Independent bookstores thrive in the age of Amazon

The 1998 film You’ve Got Mail portrayed Meg Ryan as the owner of a quaint, neighborhood bookstore being preyed upon by a Barnes & Noble–like behemoth.

The film foreshadowed the likelihood of heartless, corporate megastores knocking off the mom-and-pop shops one by one, leaving only a pile of brick and mortar.

Flash forward to today. The demise of the independent bookstore by online superstores has not come to pass. But in an age that embraces all things tech, how did the quaint, neighborhood bookstore endure?

According to the American Booksellers Association, despite hitting rock-bottom in 2009, the number of independent bookstores has increased 19.3 percent, from 1,651 to 1,971. This trajectory bodes well for the future of the small business.

“Reports of our death are definitely premature,” jokes Elaine Petrocelli, owner of North Bay independent bookstore Book Passage, which has been thriving for more 30 years.

She maintains that their success is a combination of things, including the people who work in the store, the more than 800 events they host and the involvement of the authors themselves. One might happen upon local author Martin Cruz Smith sipping hot tea in a corner, which, according to Petrocelli, happened only recently.

Vicki DeArmon, marketing and events director for Copperfield’s Books, with locations in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties, asserts that these indie stores can “make bestsellers out of books,” adding that they can, “hand-sell a book, introduce it to the community,” thereby making a sleeper out of an otherwise lesser known title. This kind of symbiotic relationship is uncharacteristic of e-commerce. “You are not going to meet any authors on Amazon,” she says.

Naomi Chamblin grew up in her father’s bookstore and felt compelled to open one of her own.

“Napa was missing a bookstore. The community needed it,” she says. Thus, Napa Book Mine was born. The store has only been open a little over a year, but Chamblin and her husband, Eric Hagyard, have already opened a second location at the Oxbow Farmer’s Market in Napa.

A critical flaw in the mega-bookstore, world-wide domination theorem surfaced in 2011 when Borders closed all of its stores. The reason for their failure was a misread of the market. Peter Wahlstrom, an industry tracker for research firm Morningstar, stated in a 2011 interview for NPR, “[Borders] made a pretty big bet in merchandising, went heavy into CD music sales and DVDs, just as the industry was going towards digital. And at that same time, Barnes and Noble was pulling back.

“Barnes and Noble invested in beefing up its online sales,” Wahlstrom told NPR. “Borders did not. Instead, it expanded its physical plant and refurbished its stores. And Borders outsourced its online sales operation to Amazon. In our view, that was more like handing the keys over to a direct competitor.”

One might conclude that this casualty of commerce would create room for more online corporations to flourish. Meanwhile, Amazon announced it would be opening a store in Manhattan, close to the Macy’s flagship, a testament to the resiliency of the conventional bookshop.

Here in the North Bay, the strength of the community is integral in what makes a successful business. “We were so lucky,” says Chamblin, referring to the recent earthquake that devastated a number of businesses in Napa. “Half of our books fell to the ground, and people just showed up to help out. We were only closed for one day.” Chamblin adds, “Those experiences you cannot get in a big chain.”

And independent bookstores are as equally involved in their communities. Book Passage began its foray into civic participation when it conducted a writing class with local author Anne Lamott 25 years ago.

“The Bay Area’s liveliest bookstore” also conducts classes throughout the year for adults and children, in languages, art appreciation, cooking and writing classes as well as working closely with local schools, including Dominican University. Petrocelli believes that residents should “support the idea of locally owned businesses. It is the beauty of where we live. We are lucky to have this thriving community. We have fun!”

Copperfield’s DeArmon cannot deny the visceral element. “People want the experience of being in a bookstore, they want the experience of discovery. [The bookstore] evokes all the senses. It has the ability to create a whole experience.” She contrasts the personal experience of a bookstore to online dating and e-commerce. “It’s not sustaining. People want the contact.”

Amazon would do well to sleep with one eye open.

Sonoma County Library