Friday, October 24, 2008

Bookstores in Bad Times

Note: At last weekend's meeting of the board of NAIBA (the regional booksellers's assocation of which I am an executive board member), secretary Eileen Dengler "comissioned" a piece for the upcoming NAIBA newsletter. This is something I've had on my mind lately, so it was a great motivation to write out my thoughts, and Eileen graciously agreed to let me cross-post it here. Your comments are most welcome.

Bookstores in Bad Times

At this particular moment, it’s a challenge to be an idealist and an optimist: two labels I’ve embraced as I’ve found my calling as an independent bookseller. Newspaper headlines, daily sales totals, and our own tightening belts tell us that things are tough, and getting tougher. As we head into the holiday season, where most of us make 40% of our yearly sales, it can seem logical to throw up our hands and wait for the apocalypse.

But booksellers are tough, and relish a challenge. And somehow I keep finding reasons to be optimistic.

For example: if our memories are long enough, we can remember that at least through August, US Census numbers (as reported in Shelf Awareness) showed that bookstore sales continued to rise month by month over last year’s numbers, even as retail sales overall were stagnant. That seems to suggest that bookstores may be more resilient than some other segments of the economy.

And economic hard times can actually be pretty good for purveyors of books. Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly quoted Random House founder Bennett Cerf in her October 6 column: in his 1977 memoir, he asserted “The publishing business has always been rather stable. It doesn't soar when things are going crazy and people with a lot of money are spending it. . . By the same token, when everything goes to hell, books become one of the cheapest forms of pleasure.”

You’ve probably already heard the formulation “Books and Booze”: the two commodities that continue to sell when folks have little money to spend. The 15 or 25 dollars someone spends on a good book represents an investment in pleasure, entertainment, and escape that lasts a lot longer than a movie, and costs a lot less than an iPhone or a Blu-Ray player. (And if you’re selling wine or beer in your bookstore, you’re doubly insured.)

And we have the advantage of being on Main Street, not Wall Street. We’re not answerable to jittery stockholders who demand impossible quarterly growth; we are the ones we have invested in, and we’re in it for the long haul. I think more consumers are starting to understand the benefits of that. Now is the moment when the message of shopping locally to support your local economy is more resonant than ever. We have the marketing tools of IndieBound, as well as our own local first organizations and publicity efforts and personal relationships, to get that message across, and people are listening.

If we are heading into another depression – well, we’ve been here before. The publisher returns system was implemented during the Great Depression of the 1930s – so in a way, our industry has a safety valve built for just such an economic environment. As CEO Avin Domnitz of the American Booksellers Association reminded us in his open letter, now is the time to take advantage of that system, and make sure our inventory is serving us well.

Avin is a pragmatist, as are most booksellers, and I’m grateful to them for reminding me when it’s time to face hard facts. But to quote Avin himself, “Now is the time to look at your business carefully, to first identify trends, and, then, to find ways to enhance those that are positive and to soften those that are negative.”

To me, looking with all honesty at the reasons to be optimistic is one of the ways to enhance positive trends. While we work on controlling our inventory, payroll, and cash flow, we booksellers would all do well to remember the good stuff. It’s never a bad time to get inspired, to be hopeful, to remember what we have to offer, and what we have to rely on, even in tough times.

One of my fellow NAIBA board members passed along an article describing the economic downturn as an approaching storm. It’s scary, and it could get ugly.

But independent bookstores are a port in the storm. We sell a product that people can feel proud – and smart – to spend their money on. We create spaces that offer a welcome third place (and that doesn’t have a two-drink minimum). We offer human connection, and free conversation. We have “one of the cheapest forms of pleasure”, and one of the richest sources of community. We are what people are looking for.

So I’m still an optimist. And like all of us, I’m an idealist. We can and should be savvy business people (so we can keep doing what we’re doing), but we’re never going to make a massive fortune as independent booksellers, no matter how good or bad the economy gets. That's not why we do it. We do it because being an independent bookseller is one of the great good things one can do in the world. And our stores are islands of hope and perspective in scary times. We’ll be fine, because what we have to give is just what is needed now: Community. Ideas. Stories. Shelter from the storm.