NEW YORK — After decades of decline, independent bookselling has become a growth industry.
For the fourth year in a row, membership has increased in the American Bookseller Association, the independent stores’ trade group. According to CEO Oren Teicher, the association now includes 1,632 members — some operating in multiple locations — up 65 from last year. In 2009, there were 1,401 members and strong pessimism in the face of superstore chains, the online power of Amazon.com and the recent financial crisis.
Teicher notes the liquidation of Borders in 2011, but also credits the ongoing “buy local” movement and independents’ growing comfort with modern technology, whether for more efficient inventory systems or more effective online promotion. Another positive sign: Established stores, such as the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill., have made successful transitions to younger ownership.
“There was a time when people were ready to retire and couldn’t sell their stores, so they closed them,” Teicher says. “The fact that these stores are now remaining bodes well for the future.”
Teicher and others see a reversal from the peak days of Barnes & Noble and Borders, when nonstop superstore expansion often forced out the smaller stores. Now, the problem has shifted from saturated neighborhoods to underserved neighborhoods. Industry analyst Mike Shatzkin cites not just the fall of Borders, but also the “sharp reduction in shelf space for books at B&N.” Shatzkin says demand for physical books is declining, but that physical stores have been shrinking even faster.
“So the incumbents benefit and that means independents,” says Shatzkin, founder and chief executive of Idea Logical, a consultant to publishers.
Independent sellers and superstores will gather this week along with thousands of publishers, writers, agents and librarians for the industry’s annual national convention, BookExpo America. The event runs Thursday-Saturday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Featured speakers will include historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Bridget Jones” novelist Helen Fielding and a star among teens, “Divergent” author Veronica Roth.
The book world meets at a moment of relative calm during an age of revolutionary change. Overall sales are steady and the e-book market is growing at a slower pace — a helpful trend for physical stores. “The years of spectacular share growth for e-books are over. The rise will be steady for a long time, but it won’t be explosive,” says Shatzkin, who adds that art books and other illustrated works are simply not “e-bookable.”