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Independent Bookstores Find Their Footing

Posted: November 26, 2012

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Independent bookstores have weathered competition from big chains, Amazon and now e-books. But NPR's Lynn Neary reports that this year's holiday shopping season looks like an improvement on past years, as booksellers offer quality hardcovers and their own take on e-readers.

President Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia  go shopping at a small bookstore, One More Page, in Arlington, Va. This is shaping up to be a better holiday season for independent booksellers than in past years.

President Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia go shopping at a small bookstore, One More Page, in Arlington, Va. This is shaping up to be a better holiday season for independent booksellers than in past years. J. Scott Applewhite

In recent years, the start of the holiday shopping season has meant nothing but gloom for independent bookstores. But this year, the mood seems to be lifting, and a lot of booksellers are feeling optimistic. Even President Obama kicked off his Christmas shopping at a neighborhood bookstore in Northern Virginia.

Even so, booksellers are still having trouble enticing customers to plunk down cash for expensive hardcovers when e-books are so popular. Steve Bercu has been in the book business for 40 years. His store, BookPeople in Austin, Texas, has survived the threat of big chains, competition from Amazon and now the popularity of e-books. These days, Bercu says the brick-and-mortar bookstores that are still standing have a loyal following.

"People choose to come to this store to do their Christmas shopping on a regular basis. It's a place you can bring your family; it does not have the overwhelming intensity of a shopping mall; it's a single store," he says. "And it's just part of the season here in Austin."

The holidays, Bercu adds, are definitely the season for hardcovers. Any other time of year, you might settle for a paperback or prefer the convenience of an e-book. But at this time of year, customers are looking for something special for someone special — that novel that won the National Book Award, or maybe the biography everyone is talking about, or one of those glossy coffee-table books filled with beautiful photos and artwork.

"Anything that anyone has ever thought of as a coffee-table book pretty much only works as a coffee-table book," Bercu says. "I can't imagine anybody's gonna put ... any kind of e-readers on the coffee table and hope people look at it; it just doesn't look the same."

Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee agrees that e-books are no threat to the Christmas dominance of coffee-table books. But Goldin says art and photography volumes actually aren't doing that well at his store this year. This holiday season, Goldin says, cookbooks are the new black. "And I don't mean cheap cookbooks," he says. No one wants to spend $60 on an art book — but a $60 cookbook will fly off the shelves.

"We know people aren't particularly cooking out of those books," Goldin says, "so it's the equivalent experience. It's people buy the book to have the book, to show off the book, to enjoy the book, to be enraptured by the book," but only maybe to make one of the recipes.

Some hardcover books require a harder sell, Goldin continues. Customers have to be persuaded that a bound book has a value that can't be found in an e-book. "I think the key is to convince them that this is one that's a keeper," he says. "We're seeing some wonderful, physical books, especially in hardcover, that are just beautiful, and we'll make a case for that. We'll kind of have a customer weigh a book, put it in their hands, and say, 'Look at the quality of this paper ... that book won't be yellowed, and it won't be brittle. That book will look great in 10, 20 years.' "

"I think the smarter publishers are realizing that the way the physical book matters is in the design of it," says Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, one of the founders of Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore. She says Greenlight has started a First Editions Club for customers who want to build their own collection of books that will last.

"It works a little like a wine of the month, or a chocolate of the month club," she says. "You sign up for a six-month or a 12-month subscription, and then the booksellers at Greenlight will select new titles — fiction or nonfiction — that they think are great and might be valuable in the long term, and subscribers get a first edition of that book signed by the author.

But booksellers aren't taking any chances. They know lots of people have an e-reader on their Christmas lists, so hundreds of independent bookstores have signed up to sell Kobo e-readers and e-books this Christmas — right along with all those beautiful hardcovers.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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