Friday, January 2, 2009

Can New England Booksellers Defeat the Trend in Closings?

Lately, it seems every few weeks, I come across articles on the internet from various newspapers around the country about another independent bookstore closing. Once in a while a chain-store shop closes, but more often than not, it’s an independent. The story always has similar threads. The owner of many years has seen a steady decline in sales without hope of reversing the trend. Frequently, there is no one else in the family interested in continuing the business. Attempts to sell have failed and the final decision is to close.

Some of the authors of these articles have commented on the influence of internet-based shopping, such as, the influx of chain-based bookstores, such as Borders and the perceived overall decline in reading as contributors to the onslaught of independent bookstore closings. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that this trend away from independent store owners has hit the bookseller just as much as neighborhood groceries, local sandwich shops, local pharmacies and other owner-operated enterprises. It’s very difficult in the modern age to compete with the efficiencies of the chain or box store. Look what Home Depot and Lowe’s did to the local lumber yard.

Are Things Different in New England?
But, in New England, I have detected an extra heartiness among the independent booksellers. The rural New England bookstore has managed to succeed into the new age without compromising too much of its rural charm. The successful and appealing local booksellers are the ones that merge the online sale of books with the brick and mortar attractions. Where necessary, the local, rural New England bookstore offers the CD’s, the cafĂ©, the
wi-fi and other modern accoutrements that allow them to compete with the chain and box versions of the old-fashioned, rural, neighborhood bookstore; all this without sacrificing the sometimes esoteric, charming, personal touch many of us enjoy at the local, rural New England bookshop.
Without any scientific or statistical basis for making any claims, I would offer one observer’s opinion that the Toadstool bookstores in Peterborough NH and Milford NH are not likely to become threatened by a box store. They maintain enough rural distance to not be attractive to the chain store, which thrives in the denser population areas. Now, the Toadstool bookstore in Keene NH faces the challenge of a box store already in place. But, the community is certainly large enough and vibrant enough to support these two stores, plus a few others that co-exist in Keene. So, what are the prospects for closings? I see them as unlikely in the near future. The strength of these independents rests in their location, their commitment to stocking what the community is looking for, their creativity in inventory and presentation, all of which, keep the customers coming back.

Cherish Rural Bookstores While We Still Have Them
While we have them, the local, rural New England bookstore is a rare treat. It’s a place to satisfy the need to hold a book in your hand, surprise yourself with a used book at a tremendous bargain, (which you had been meaning to read for years) and a place where you can maintain a bit of community contact, not otherwise likely to happen at Mr. Big Box.

In its January 9, 2008 edition, in its Travel section, USA Today selected nine bookstores across the country that it considered worthy as a
tourists destination. Not just a place to visit while doing something else – but, as a reason to get on a plane, train or automobile and seek out the designated bookseller. They asked the question, “When is a bookstore worth a tourist’s time”? Their answer was “When it’s more than just a place where you can buy books.”

By that definition, to be a destination for a tourist or anyone interested in more than just grabbing the latest best-seller, the “destination” bookstore must offer something not available at a cookie-cutter chain-store or just a click-away on the internet (free shipping included). It must offer the tactile, aromatic, convivial something only available at your neighborhood, rural, locally-owned independent bookstore. For each of us, it’s something different and probably not well defined. But, as the famous Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

For me, that’s what keeps the successful independent bookstore operating during these highly competitive times for small retailers. It’s the reason why I believe that the New England bookstore will defeat the trend in closings suffered recently by independent booksellers.

By the way, as it turns out, the USA Today article did not include any booksellers in New England. Well, for my sake, that’s not a bad thing. Why? Well, because it leaves my book, A Vacationer’s Guide to Rural New England Bookstores, your single best source to find an excellent “destination bookstore,” in New England. (Just a brief commercial message; sorry.)