Why Should Writers Care About Indie Bookstores?

PhotobucketI recently had the opportunity to read a letter written by an independent bookstore owner about the state of his business. Though it’s not my place to share those details here, I do want to talk about a general sentiment read in that letter that made me feel both sad and frustrated. It went something like this:

It’s not that people are deaf to the message that we’re here and struggling. They know they could do more to help small bookstores. But aside from a token gesture now and then, people are shutting down to small bookstores. What we hear more and more often is “Why should I help?”

It was the “Why” in this that got to me. Because I’m sorry for the store owners who’ve toiled and built and are now seeing ashes of their businesses. But also because we *do* need indie bookstores–especially authors. Have we really forgotten this? Even looking at it from the strictly selfish perspective of “What do we get out of this as writers and authors?” have we forgotten that:

  • Author events are rarely as unique and personal as they are at indie bookstores.
  • Making connections at the local level shouldn’t be minimized; it’s as much a part of “platform building” as creating a website (ask Christina Katz). Meaningful relationships can form through indie bookstore ties. For example, many bookstore owners appreciate our input as authors and are eager to hear about our book recommendations.
  • Your indie store may be the only location that can provide readers from afar with your signed books. Wouldn’t you like a local hub that doesn’t originate in your family room?
  • If an indie bookstore loves your published book, they might recommend you for The Indie Next List. The support that can grow from the grassroots efforts of a few indie stores can increase the profile of a novel and help to launch a career. Just ask A.S. King. (A.S. will be here in July to talk more about her love of indie stores.)
  • Simply being among all of those hand-chosen books can be inspiring–and remind us all why we wanted to be authors to begin with. Explore those “staff picks” tables, and soak in the culture of the book. It’s not an experience you can replicate online. (See Barbara O’Neal post for more on this sentiment.)
  • Being at a real bookstore gets you away from the Internet. And as Ann Patchett said on The Colbert Report, “[I]f you never, ever talk to people and you meet all of your needs on the Internet, you wake up one day and you’re the Unibomber.” And, hey. Important.

Brunonia Barry usually writes here on the second Thursday of the month, however she’s going to be on leave through September while she works on her latest novel. In the interim, we’re going to use this day to talk indie bookstores–why we need them, as authors and readers.

Coincidentally, this is also the day of the month that Beyond the Margins, one of my favorite blogs, has chosen to profile indie bookstores. Today, they’re talking more about the store owner’s letter that I mentioned in my lead. We hope you’ll hop over there to participate in their initiative, too–and add them to your sidebars, because they really are awesome. In the meanwhile, here’s a question for you:

Why do YOU care about indie bookstores? If you have a story you’d like to share about how an indie store impacted you, please sound out in comments or shoot us a note at writerunboxed@writerunboxed.com. Kath and I may just tap you on the shoulder in the coming months to see if you’d like to come over for a guest post.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s e_pics

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.

Comments

  1. Louise Hughes says

    We don’t really have independent bookshops where I live (North east UK), so I’m going to go with second-hand bookshops, which are the same sort of thing.

    I recently moved back home, into an area where I no longer know anyone except my parents, and just the other week I discovered my local second-hand bookshop. Its in a town where there are no chain bookshops, or anything else. I went in, picked a few books, and then spent the next hour talking about Sci-fi books and the local area with the owner, and a couple of others (while the owner attempted to use Facebook, which his son had just set up for him). Its a fantastic place! Despite the fact that it looks like a book-factor exploded, he knows exactly what books he’s got (even in the attic) and I got a couple of recommendations from the other customers. I was amazed at the cheeriness of the guy running it, when, in his words “no one in [depressed-nothern-town] reads books”. He also goes around to local markets though, so maybe that’s where he’s getting money. As I left, he reminded me that if I bring books to the shop, I can get a half-price discount (yay!).

    When I eventually get published, this is the kind of place I’ll turn to. After all, my local branch of Waterstones is currently a bit like a graveyard, the few customers creeping around in silence.

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    • says

      That sounds like a great find in a [depressed-nothern-town], Louise. I imagine used bookstores and indie bookstores are fighting many of the same problems right now. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  2. says

    I had my best book launch ever at an independent bookstore here in Perth, Western Australia: Fantastic Planet, a speculative fiction specialist store (fantasy, science fiction, horror.) This is the kind of store where a customer can walk in and get personalized service. Staff know the stock backwards. They can answer questions about everything from the latest publications to cult classics to obscure and half-forgotten titles. They are happy to order stuff on request. They can ask the customer a few questions and zero in on appropriate recommendations. They always have time for the customer.

    Sure, you pay a bit more in an independent bookstore. But where else do you get that level of service? Where else is shopping for books such a positive experience?

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    • says

      I agree with you about level of service, Juliet. So many of the books at these stores have been hand chosen and are well known–and read. People who work at indie stores seem to be down-to-the-bone book lovers, which is why their Staff Pick tables are also treasure troves.

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  3. says

    Sadly, indie bookstores don’t exist in my region. The two Borders are now closed leaving only a local B&N outlet. Though I agree with your sentiments, Therese, I’m afraid the bookstore will suffer the same fate as the record store, where I met so many good people who shared my passion for rock and roll. The times they are achangin.

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  4. says

    I love my local indie. They know my name. They recognize my voice on the phone (lately there have been a lot of calls that start with, “Do you have a copy of…” and end with “Could you hold it for me until tomorrow?”) They talk books with me. It’s a little like the bar in Cheers!, only with books instead of brews.

    Go Seminary Coop Bookstore!

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  5. says

    In the last 6 months, I’ve visited a handful of independent bookstores. South Georgia, North Georgia, North Carolina. I write romance. They didn’t have romance sections unless it was to carry Nora Roberts. They were filled with a lot of non-fiction, some newer fictions, some local authors to their region and though I’ve purchased some things from them, their selections left a lot to be desired. Now, B&N lately does as well. I love bookstores, always have. I love sitting for hours and reading or flipping through book after book after book. Some of these stores are dark and old and musty, some were refurbished, bright and welcoming. Those were the ones with wall to wall customers. The dark stores were always devoid. One of the bookstores even had a wine section which was awesome. The way things were are not the way things are. Times have changed and I don’t want to see the bookstores go the way of the record stores. I miss the record stores and I think the loss of bookstores would be an even more profound loss. But even those stores must change if they are looking to bring people back to their doors.

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    • says

      I hear you, Lissa. But what do you think they should be doing differently, and would it be enough for them to compete with the big-chain stores and e-readers?

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  6. Erska says

    I’m guilty of selling out (or rather, buying in) to Amazon. When I lived in cities with many small, independent bookstores in my neighborhood (Kitsilano, Vancouver and downtown Ottawa), that’s where most of my book money went. I loved browsing the musty stacks of art books and buying books based solely on the covers or staff endorsement. But now that I live in a city in which the nearest independent book shop is a twenty-minute drive away (in “the city that reads,” no less), I rarely bother. And I’ve gotten too good at finding cheap books online! I suppose a healthy compromise would be to purchase books online from independent sellers, and this post has certainly inspired me to do so more often, but this still eliminates the most important (to me) aspect of buying from independent sellers: the community-building and social aspects – not to mention the sensual enjoyment I get from physically touching and exploring shelves of books I would otherwise ignore when browsing online.

    Anyway, this was a great post that has made my Amazon patronage much harder to justify!

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    • says

      Erska,

      I can’t help but wonder whether your Indie bookstores offer shipping. I too face a long drive to the nearest bookstore of any kind (20-some miles), and an unable to make the trip very often. But recently I was pleasantly surprised to find that I can order books from them online, then either pick them up or have them shipped to me. Any book that I can find on Amazon, I can find at Forever Books. This will change the way I shop, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

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  7. M says

    I recently moved from a mid-size city to the suburbs of one of the top 5 largest cities in America. In my mid-size city, we have exactly one indie bookstore (I discovered it after moving) that is focused on women’s lit and how it manages to stay afloat since no one knows about it is mind-blogging but it deserves so much more recognition than it receives.

    As you can imagine, the big city has tons of indie bookstore options. It’s almost overwhelming. I had no idea what I was missing until I came here. But in the last couple months, I’ve heard of at least two stores that are struggling. It’s saddening to me that people in the city have no idea how good they have it.

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    • says

      I read something this past week about two indie stores that joined forces when they hit on hard times, and I believe their outlook is good now. (Wish I’d saved that link, but if I find it, I’ll post it here.) I hope more struggling stores consider how they might link up with others, even if it means de-emphasizing the ‘in’ in ‘independent.’

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  8. Tristi Mullett says

    I’ve been lurking around here for about four months or so, and this is the first time I’ve felt truly compelled to chime in. I live in San Diego, CA and have found my home bookstore; Mysterious Galaxy. It’s a fantabulous store of sci-fi, fantasy, mystery and horror books that brings back the magic of book store shopping. I can spend hours perusing the shelves to make my choices. Their author events are equally awesome, and their staff is wonderful. They know me, can make recommendations of things that I’ve enjoyed time and time again. I’d been working in the nearby area for some three years before I found it, and have been a loyal customer ever since.

    I would truly hate to see it disappear, not only because my selection of fantasy and sci-fi would be relegated to 2 combined shelving units at the B&N by my house, but because the writer’s support group that operates out of it will also become extinct. It’s through them that I’ve learned of and downloaded the IndieBound app on my smart phone to purchase ebooks from MG and not Amazon (well, mostly), and become a better writer, more solidly on the path to publication.

    Thank you, Therese, for helping to remind the author-world of just how important these stores truly are. For without those treasure troves of books awaiting a reader’s discovery to be transported into wonderful stories, why are we working so hard to join those already on the shelves? I have such stories to tell, and I would be heartbroken if I was forced to tell them without the help of MG.

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  9. says

    About three years ago my family and I moved to a different house in our town. Our first house was a five minute drive from the local indie bookstore. When we were house hunting, I just couldn’t bear the idea that we’d potentially be farther away than that. In the end, we wound up still just 5 minutes away. I’m convinced that this proximity played into my decision-making process.

    That said, with my kids getting bigger and life getting busier every day, I caved and bought a Kindle for both myself and my 12 year-old son. My son goes through books in a few hours. Before we got his Kindle, it would often take a few days at least for us to find time to make that 5 minute-drive and browse for new books. In the meantime, he’d get bored and restless with nothing to read so would inevitably wind up picking up whatever book his younger brother happened to be reading…. You can see where this is going: the fighting, the whining, the bickering. Uggh!

    It’s convenient to be able to download stuff instantly, but I’m sad that this has definitely reduced the number of trips we take to the bookstore.

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    • says

      Thanks for your honest comment, Sharon. E-readers are one of the greatest challenges for all brick-and-mortar bookstores right now, indie and big-chain stores alike. I have one too.

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  10. says

    When my first novel was released, Osondu Booksellers gave me a “release party” – it was wonderful. I worried no one would come, but they did. We had food and champagne toast.

    The owner, Margaret Osondu, loved my book –she’d read it before it was published — and talked it up every chance. Though she didn’t say, I believe she is the one who nominated Tender Graces for a SIBA award.

    I even ‘taught’ a class there on editing/writing – we’d be all comfy there, welcomed by Margaret.

    Osondu’s had to close, and I cried the day I went there to help her pack up. It was such a cozy wonderful place. There is another indie bookstore in town, and I do go there, but I admit not as much as I did Osondu, for it was right there- right on the main ‘drag’ of main street, all tucked in cozy.

    I have said before that the road goes both ways — for indie bookstores to say we don’t support them when some of them do not support small press authors, well, it’s kind of the pot calling the kettle thing. However, despite that, I still have a love of small cozy bookstores and my heart tears for the ones struggling or closing -like Osondu.

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    • says

      So sad that store closed, Kathryn. Thanks for touching on an important point: Indie stores that support small-press authors might become lauded for just that–carrying unique novels that are often ignored by big chain stores.

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  11. says

    When I first moved to the city I live in now there were plenty of indie bookstores as well as second hand bookstores, Waldenbooks, Borders, and Barnes& Noble to choose from. Then the recession and some of indie bookstores started disappearing…next Waldenbooks closed it’s doors (I was there at midnight one year for a Harry Potter book release party)…and then Borders was gone. Then I lost my job and the days of being able to afford more expensive brand new books went by the wayside. Thankfully I still had my second hand bookstores to feed my insatiable hunger for books until recently when I’m now seeing even some of those stores closing their doors.

    Bookstore shelves are filled with books written by independent writers, sold to independent customers and read by independent readers everywhere. SHOULDN’T we as a society be MORE concerned about supporting the indie bookstores in our areas so that they will continue to thrive?

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  12. says

    Thanks Therese,
    I know this isn’t exactly what you were talking about, but I think one of the best experiences as a reader is meandering through the aisles of a used book store in ponderous thought. Nothing compares to being lost in that oasis of printed pages. It is with a taste of hypocrisy on my tongue that I confess my enjoyment for browsing through Amazon.com almost as much. I hope the small bookstores never go away – what would I tell my unborn children?

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  13. says

    nicely put

    I don’t have many indie stores near me, but i always like the personal touch, be it books, music etc

    It’s a disappearing art, but hopefully they cling on for dear life for a few generations yet. It will be a sad day if they all leave forever :(

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

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  14. says

    I can’t believe people ask “why” to the question of saving indie bookstores! Have we really become such brand driven society that people think B&N is the only place to find books? It concerns me that after Borders went out of business people did not wake up to the fact that if we don’t fight to keep our independent bookstores, we really won’t have a choice of where to go to find books (except Amazon, I suppose). In the past people have become concerned about cell phone or oil companies merging and eliminating the competition, but isn’t the same thing happening to books? I’m so glad there is a community of writers and readers out there trying to keep these places alive. It’s a much more personal experience, and most book stores are run by friendly book lovers who love to chat about reading. Also, indie book stores are usually the best place to find local literary journals.

    Anyway, thank you for the thoughtful post! Hopefully they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. (Except maybe to those communities that don’t have them yet!)

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  15. says

    Our local indie is barely making it; they’d closed, then the patrons banned together into a co-op, which is helping but it’s still running on fumes. My daughter was gutted when Borders closed; I’m a little concerned about the last remaining bookstore, B&N.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I’m hopeful that bookstores are focusing on providing patrons with an environment that supports the reading experience — discussions, author signings, special events — to help keep them afloat.

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  16. says

    We have a local indie, The Poisoned Pen, that hosts multiple authors almost every week. Some of my favorite authors came to my attention through these great book talks, and several great friendships with writers came about from meeting them at the Pen. No way can you get that from the online-only bookstores. A good indie is far more than a place to buy books–and a great supporter of authors. My world would be much less engaging without the indie bookstores in my area.

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    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Judith. I do wonder if indie stores that have many author events might be in better shape than stores that don’t do this. Becoming a sort of cultural center is something indie stories can do. With the right press, it can drive attention and traffic to their doors, and hopefully result in an upswing of sales.

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  17. Allison says

    Aren’t indies kind of like loved ones we take for granted until they’re gone? I was heartbroken when I heard that Canterbury Booksellers (in my college town) had closed. When I was in college, I went in there one night in a funk over my writing and found that Arthur Golden was giving a reading of Memoirs of a Geisha. This was before anyone had even heard of the book! It was magical because not only was I a Japanese major, but my biggest dream at the time was to go to Japan. And only an indie provides this kind of intimate experience.

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  18. says

    A book store is a book store as far as I’m concerned, and the only one I’m really acquainted with locally is “Dirt Cheap Books”, where a huge range of novels (none of them which I saw while I was there were big names in Kmart or anything) for less than $5 each. I don’t know if it was indie, but it was small and different (and easy on the pocket until you decided, if they’re only $5 let’s buy like a gazillion and then you end up spending about $100-$200 on books you don’t have TIME to read) and I just really love having it around. :)

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    • says

      I share your affliction of buying far too many books than I can ever read, Bonnee. But at least we’re supporting authors and book sellers, right? :-)

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  19. says

    Indie bookstores are my favorite venue when it comes to hawking a new book.
    One I must brag on is FoxTale Book Shoppe on Main Street in Woodstock, GA.
    Three book loving women own and run it – Karen, Jackie and Ellen know how to throw a party! Wine and food and authors. They’ve had mary Kay Andrews, Rick Bragg, Terry Kay, Joshilyn Jackson, and Kathryn Stockett to name just a few.
    When I’ve been there, these ladies made me feel famous. They served refreshments, passed out t-shirts with the lovely Foxtail logo printed on the front, and they know how to draw a crowd.
    They get the word out for book events and authors! Sending wild and colorful emails.
    Thanks Fox Tales!

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    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Julie. I really do think community outreach is important for indie stories. Those wild and colorful emails you receive telling you about cool events? So important in a time when fewer people are buying/reading their local newspapers, where book events may or may not be listed/buried. I hope all indie store owners who haven’t yet created mailing lists and monthly newsletters are busy doing that now.

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  20. says

    Frankly, my experience has been largely negative with indie bookstores as a genre writer. Most that I’ve approached have shown no interest and several have shoved my books at me and flat out told me “We don’t your type of book.”

    Whether it’s science fiction, romance (56% of fiction), thrillers, etc. many indies turn their noses up at them. The fact most of those were out of business within a few years is telling.

    I see so many cries of “save the indie bookstore” yet have never seen a single cry of “save the indie author.”

    I know my view isn’t popular and perhaps my experience is an aberration, but quite a few authors I know have had the same experience.

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  21. Crichardwriter says

    My favorite Indie so far has been the Concord Bookstore in Concord, MA. I have met so many wonderful authors and people there, and I try to purchase a few books each time I go. The thing that bookstores can offer that online sources cannot is human connection, and they should all remember that; as long as they keep doing events to bring communities together, then they will have a fighting chance at surviving. I also try to support Indie bookstores whenever I travel to different places.

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