U.S. neighborhood bookstores thrive in digital age

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. independent bookstores are discovering how to flourish despite the growth of electronic books with some even looking to form an alliance with a formidable competitor -- Google.

An employee holds books as she poses for photographers in a bookshop in London October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, which represents bookstores in the northeast, said its membership has remained steady at about 300 stores over the last decade. Closures have been offset by new stores opening and existing stores have developed new business strategies.

The New York travel bookstore Idlewild offers French and Italian lessons; San Francisco’s The Booksmith hosts singles events for book lovers; and Politics and Prose in Washington offers 10 readings each week.

New York Magazine declared “Indie Bookstores Rising” in a recent profile of 13 new or refurbished New York bookstores.

“We often say we’re like Mark Twain: that the rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated,” said Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), an industry group for independent bookstores.

The ABA has reached a deal with Google Editions -- Google’s digital bookstore, due to launch this fall -- that would allow its 14,000 members to sell Google’s eBooks through their websites.

“Google Editions will serve as an e-bookstore, an e-book wholesaler, an e-book discovery platform and an e-book storage system in the cloud,” said Jeannie Hornung, spokeswoman for Google Books and News.

“We anticipate Google Editions will be a popular channel for independent bookstores with a web presence,” said Hornung, adding that Google expected hundreds of bookstores to sign on.

The deal’s success depends on consumers’ willingness to purchase eBooks from their local bookstore rather than from a competing retailer such as Apple or Barnes & Noble, the largest U.S. bookstore chain, which has put itself up for sale amid declining sales.

“Getting into the business of being able to provide digital content to consumers is one way in which to evolve,” Teicher said.

While the details of the alliance are still being sorted out, bookstore owners say there is no contradiction in a community bookstore selling eBooks.

“What we hear from our customers is a great deal of enthusiasm for price bundling, so you can read the physical book at home when you’re in bed at night and when you’re on the subway you can read the same book on your e-reader,” said Rachel Meier, general manager at Booksmith.


While book sales are down, industry experts say the demand for bookstores with a local feel remains strong.

Bookstore owners say the industry has found new life with the locavore movement, which puts a premium on locally grown or raised food. The trend has brought farmers markets and by extension breweries and craft soap factories to cities.

“People are rediscovering the value of an independent store that’s connected to their neighborhood and understands them and their tastes,” said Jessica Stockton Bugnolo, who opened Greenlight Bookstore this year.

Bugnolo hosts frequent events with local writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Lethem, and said creating an intimate community environment is the best way to build loyalty. She also signed on with ABA to begin selling Google Editions.

“Bookstores are still promoting the story, and whether you want to read it on paper or on your iPad, we still want to be able to sell that story to consumers,” said Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association. “Everyone wants to do it. It’s how they’re going to do it,”

Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Alan Elsner