In August 2005, just three months after celebrating their 50th anniversary, Kepler’s Books, an independent bookstore and beacon for cultural progress in Menlo Park, CA, closed their doors. With anniversary banners and advertisements for upcoming events that could be seen from El Camino Real still hanging inside the store, it may have seemed like a crude practical joke, like the lights would be turned back on the next day, that it would be business as usual. But the next day, the store remained dark.
The store’s loyal customers and employees were dismayed by the sudden shutdown. Gerry Masteller, former co-owner of Printer’s Inc., an indie bookstore in Palo Alto that closed it’s doors four years before Kepler’s followed in suit, found it “embarrassing” that such an established intellectual community couldn’t support this hub for progressive thought and dialogue.
And then, a little over a month later, the store reopened, as if it all really had been a practical joke. In reality there was nothing funny about it. The store had cited a number of reasons for its closure, including a significant drop in book sales and steep rent costs. But Kepler’s was able to make its expeditious recovery because of monetary support and sound business advice from individuals who cherished the bookstore’s rich tradition. With the help of a concerned community and local investors, Kepler’s was once again in business, with a whole new business model structured by volunteers and more than $500,000 from new shareholders.
Kepler’s is one of the very fortunate and very few bookstores that can say that it was saved by its community. Another one that comes to mind is Brazos Bookstore in Houston, which nearly closed its doors in the spring of 2006, but was bailed out by over a dozen locals who each invested $10,000 or more to keep the indie store kicking.
But enough of that, let me get to my point: most indie bookstores can’t rely on their communities to save them from looming misfortune when the clock runs out, and those that can shouldn’t. Cody’s Books, once a 50-year institution in Berkeley, CA, shut its doors for good around the same time that Brazos was being saved. And NYC’s Coliseum Books closed down not once, but twice, in 2002 and 2007, after being open for over a quarter century. Not that Cody’s or Coliseum were expecting them to, but neither bookstore’s community organized themselves or their money to come to the rescue.
Of course, the most recent of these closures was three years ago (in Twitter years, that’s got to be at least nine lifetimes), and indie bookstores have learned to begin adapting to changing times. But things aren’t getting any easier. It seems like there are new e-readers or book apps that sprout up everyday, and Amazon’s prices just keep getting lower and lower. Indie bookstores need to head off any new developments and embrace them in a way that maintains the integrity of their business models, before it’s too late, their doors are locked, and bookstore owners are looking back and thinking of all the things they could have done to keep business alive.
All that being said, of course I have some ideas. They’re still materializing, but I’d like to share with you what I’ve come up with. And I’d like to open up a dialogue about how feasible some of these ideas are, and to have you comment with your own thoughts on how indie bookstores can not only manage, but thrive in this era of electronic books and reading from screens. So without further ado, a short list of things that indie bookstores can do to continue adapting to the changing times while maintaining the respect and admiration of their communities:
- Start a conversation on a blog that engages the local audience. If you run an indie bookstore that doesn’t have a blog, what are you waiting for? Blogs are for writing, bookstores are for readers, and readers love to write. At the very least, readers love to write about other people’s writing that they admire. Use the blog to write about what’s going down at the bookstore: previous and upcoming events, new books, that green stuff you ate for lunch today that reminded you of that passage in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Let employees contribute posts about their favorite upcoming books. Invite the community to guest post. Here’s an opportunity to have a community-wide conversation outside of the daily readings that you have. Take advantage of it.
- If you have an Espresso Book Machine, host readings by the authors who use it to print their books. The advantage that indie bookstores have that the internet doesn’t is that it can embrace a geographic community in real life. So if you’ve got an EBM and a few local authors who’ve printed their books on it, organize a reading for them to share excerpts. If you don’t have an EBM, find a bookstore that does, and co-host a reading. You’d be surprised how big of an audience four or five locals can draw.
- Team up with online literary communities like Fictionaut to hold readings with local writers who are using those platforms to publish. It’s silly to ignore communities like this – they are part of the future of literature. The way to incorporate this, but still keep your events on a local level, is to seek out the writers who use these platforms who are located in your area, and then invite them to read. And contact the people who run the platforms themselves – they may want to get involved, and may be interested in expanding upon the idea. At a time of so much change, it can’t hurt to consider all your options, or to make all the connections you can.
- Embark upon a bookstore tour. Take five or so local authors on a reading tour of indie bookstores across the country. Bring authors who don’t mind couch surfing. Take a look at the innovative things that Artifice Magazine has been doing on its Literary Magazine Tour – it’s pretty much the same concept, and they’re holding it down. Utilize IndieBound and their connections across the country to book the tour, exchange ideas with other indie bookstores along your tour, and invite them to your bookstore when they hold their own bookstore tour (BooksTOUR… yeah, I said it). Tours like these will encourage other communities across the country to support local bookstores, and when bookstore tours come to your store, they’ll do the same for you. Plus, local authors will reach a wider audience with their work.
- Here’s one for you. What’s your fifth for this list? is there something your local bookstore is already doing that all indies should be clued into?
Now’s the time for bookstores to think about how they’re going to evolve with the times. We all love our indies, so let’s brainstorm some ideas for their prolonged existence. And Go!