Books
3:48 pm
Mon November 26, 2012

Independent Bookstores Find Their Footing

Originally published on Mon November 26, 2012 5:18 pm

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 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

ECommerce is the challenge to the traditional book-selling business in recent years. But as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, bookstores can still depend on holiday shoppers to go for that reliable old technology, print on paper.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Steve Bercu has been in the book business for 40 years. His store, Bookpeople in Austin, Texas, has survived the threat of big chains, the competition from Amazon, and now is weathering the popularity of eBooks. These days, Bercu says, bookstores that are still standing have a loyal following.

STEVE BERCU: 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. And it's just part of the season here in Austin.

NEARY: The holidays, says Bercu, are definitely the season for hardcovers. Any other time of year, you might settle for a paperback or prefer the convenience of an eBook. But at this time of year, customers are looking for something special for someone special. That novel that won an award, the biography everyone is talking about, those glossy coffee table books filled with beautiful photos and artwork.

DANIEL GOLDIN: Anything that anyone ever thought of as a coffee table book, pretty much only works as a coffee table book. I can't imagine anybody is going to put any kind of eReader on the coffee table and hope people look at it.

NEARY: Daniel Goldin, of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, agrees that eBooks are no threat to that Christmas present standby. But Goldin says art and photography books aren't doing that well at his store this year. This holiday season, Goldin says, cookbooks are the new coffee table book.

GOLDIN: And I don't mean cheap cookbooks. I mean, the equivalent price point of a book at $60, say, that we can't really do well with an artbook. But for a cookbook we can really sell it well. And we know that people aren't particularly cooking out of those books, so it's the equivalent experience. It's people buy the book to show off the book, to enjoy the book, maybe to make something.

NEARY: Goldin does think that some hardcover books require a harder sell. Customers have to be persuaded that a physical book has a value that can't be found in an eBook.

GOLDIN: I think the key is to convince them that this one that's a keeper and we'll make a case for that. We'll kind of have a customer weigh a book, like, 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.

JESSICA STOCKTON BAGNULO: I think the smarter publishers are realizing that the way that the physical book matters is in the design of it.

NEARY: Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. She says her store has started a First Editions Club for customers who want to build their own collection of books that will last.

BAGNULO: It works a little like a wine of the month or a chocolate of the month club. 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.

NEARY: But booksellers aren't taking any chances. They know lots of people have an eReader on their Christmas lists. So hundreds of independent bookstores have signed up to sell Kobo eReaders and eBooks this Christmas, right along with all those hardcovers.

Lynn Neary NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.