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Sunday, October 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fair
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As chain bookselling contracts, independents see an opening
Small is big
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Credit:Thomas Allen

Long before Borders closed its doors last summer, the accepted wisdom was that bookstores - and even the printed book - were well on their way to extinction. Bricks-and-mortar booksellers couldn't compete amid online discounting, the rise of e-books and the economic downturn, the thinking went. There was also a widely touted belief that an increasingly distracted populace no longer takes the time to read books.

And yet in spite of the general forecast, stories keep popping up that offer a different picture. In August, the Association of American Publishers reported that publishers' net sales were up 5.6% over the period 2008-10. According to the American Booksellers Association, over 65 independent bookstores have opened in the last two years, five of them in Wisconsin. One of those Wisconsin stores, the Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, has been profitable in its first two years, and its owner, Daniel Goldin, is credited with supplying valuable advice to author Ann Patchett as she prepared to open her own independent bookstore in Nashville last November.

Closer to home, A Room of One's Own, the downtown independent founded in 1975, announced that it would be merging with Avol's and effectively doubling its square footage by moving this summer into the Gorham Street storefront once held by Canterbury Booksellers. More recently, manager and co-owner Sandi Torkildson reported that sales in the last year had exceeded expectations, thanks in part to a request that went out to the store's patrons to pledge to buy five more books at the store during this calendar year.

While the picture for booksellers is still not exactly rosy, there is growing evidence that smart, adaptable independent booksellers like Goldin and Torkildson may continue to find enough customers to stay afloat.

Madisonians Conor and Molly Moran believe that a boom of independent openings is on the horizon. They've been exploring the viability of opening a bookstore here and have developed confidence that it could work. (They are careful not to say yet just when they might open their store, or where.)

Acknowledging that chain bookselling operations have not been able to compete very well in the current market, Conor points to Boswell Book Company's success in Milwaukee, where the multi-store Schwartz's had failed. In addition, he says, "Madison is a good place for indies because of its large community of avid readers and a strong sentiment toward buying local."

Before returning to Madison in 2010, the Morans lived for three years in Washington, D.C., where Conor was a manager and assistant events coordinator at longtime independent Politics & Prose.

"They were thriving" Conor says, and sales actually increased over the period of his tenure there. With events almost every night, he and Molly saw in practice that an aggressive and well-organized events strategy can enhance not only sales, but patron loyalty.

"Local bookstores provide community space," Conor asserts, "a public forum in which to meet and share ideas." He adds that good booksellers must make themselves experts at editing choices with the community in mind, highlighting those titles that will be of interest to their specific clientele, and offering events that cross a wide range of topics.

The Morans admit that no bricks-and-mortar booksellers can compete with Amazon's deep discounting, though independents have more tools these days to bring in and hold on to book buyers. For example, the American Booksellers Association now provides a package of software that allows its members an array of programs that can not only make the local independent more efficient, but also make it an appealing option for patrons who want to do their buying online.

Or, as Sandi Torkildson at A Room of One's Own puts it, "Bookselling has grown up and become more businesslike." Successful independents, she says, have gotten smarter about such things as inventory control.

"You need to know what's selling," she says, speaking to the importance of a computerized inventory control. "You have to modernize."

A Room of One's Own's website utilizes the template provided by the ABA. It provides reviews and staff picks as well as information about upcoming store events. You can easily and quickly access titles from the inventory, selecting whether you would like your purchases shipped to you, held for you at the store, or downloaded to your e-reader using Google e-books. It may not provide the expansiveness of Amazon's database, but Torkildson scoffs at the online giant's recommendation program.

"Amazon's recommendations are based on books people bought, not books they actually read and liked," she says. Her own common sense, she believes, has been one of her greatest assets for surviving the ups and downs of the bookselling business.

Torkildson admits to some frustration with customers who come into the bookstore to get recommendations and a closer look at books they'll then go home and buy on Amazon. But she thinks that Borders' closing has caused more people to consider the possibility of a Madison without dedicated bookstores. She has begun using this marketing aphorism: Find it here; buy it here; keep us here.

"I've never just accepted the common wisdom," she says. "To be successful you have to be willing to really think about the trends you're seeing. And also talk to a lot of customers."

One thing Torkildson has realized from talking to customers is that being in the presence of books is still important to large numbers of them. Sure, lots of people have begun to use digital reading devices - some 7% of the marketplace, according to the ABA's 2010 Survey of Book Buying Behavior in America. And that number is expected to reach 12%-15% in the next few years. But Torkildson and others believe that there will be a ceiling to such growth, as with most media innovations.

There is something powerfully human about wanting - even needing - the physical experience of a book that you can't get from an e-reader. Regardless of how technically adept we've become, almost all of us still experience our first books as objects we can touch and turn over in our hands. A friend recently told me that her book group has rejected the use of e-readers because, in order to discuss a book, they needed the visual and kinesthetic experience of the chapters and pages to find passages they wanted to refer to at their meetings.

Andrea Christofferson, marketing and sales manager at the University of Wisconsin Press, talks animatedly about "the mystical side of loving books." She perceives that we're at a tipping point where readers are migrating to devices, but she also thinks people are realizing that they don't have to choose between e-books and paper books.

"A paper book can be a talisman," she says. We may want to keep a particular book on our shelves not only for the author's words, but what they meant to us at the time we read them, and how they shaped us. "Maybe a book is not really, or not only, what is between the bindings," she says.

Changes in the publishing and bookselling landscape are benefiting not only smaller booksellers, but also smaller publishers like the UW Press.

Based on numbers from October 2011, the UW Press' sales numbers are up from the previous year, and greatly up from 2008, a dismal year across the industry. That's very good news at a time when libraries - the major purchaser of scholarly publications - must cope with increasingly smaller acquisitions budgets. Christofferson credits the Press' acquisitions staff, who must think three years ahead about what they want to publish. It is a balancing act between the Press' commitment to scholarly communication and "the art of anticipating what people will be interested in."

It's also important, of course, for the Press to make its publications easily accessible in affordable formats. More e-books sales are originating directly with publishers, and many, though not all, of UW Press' catalogue titles are already available to download as e-books. And, Christofferson says, many exciting experiments in the digital marketplace have the potential to increase the availability and readership of scholarly journals and manuscripts published through university presses.

One of those, Project MUSE, went online Jan. 1, offering libraries, researchers and students access to a database of easily searchable, electronic, book-length scholarship, including new and classic titles. The database is fully integrated with over 500 journal titles. From subscribing organizations such as libraries, researchers will be able to retrieve search results down to the chapter level, and print in PDF format.

Eventually, Christofferson expects to see hybrids between journal articles and scholarly monographs - peer reviewed to expected academic standards - born digitally and never printed, available entirely through subscriber databases.

In fact, according to the 2010 Survey of Book Buying, signs point to a developing hybrid market across all publishing categories. In other words, it looks like avid readers will be buying both e-books and print books, and the advent of e-books and readers appears to be increasing readership.

Which is why Conor and Molly Moran feel that prospects look surprisingly good for independent bookselling in post-Borders Madison. In fact, the best formula for independent success might be precisely not trying to be Borders, Barnes & Noble or Amazon. An independent bookstore has the flexibility to reflect its community's specificities and its diversity.

The Morans say that the tools and readership are already right here, and that it is possible, in the shifting sands of the current market, for an enterprising bookseller to make a decent go of it.

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