Independent Bookselling

Independent Booksellers as a Unique Community Resource
Article by William Petrocelli

Independent bookstores have evolved into a unique - almost indispensable - community resource. The stores have become more than just stores, as many have evolved into places where the community gathers, where new authors are nurtured, and where the local economy is jump-started and revived. To the surprise of many people - often, the booksellers themselves - independent bookstores have become a center of local life.

This has happened mostly within the last twenty-five years, and it has gone largely unreported. Most news media have no one covering the "book beat" on a regular basis, and business schools seem to consider the everyday world of community-based retailing as beneath their dignity.

The important impact of independent bookselling can best be seen under three categories:

1. Independent bookselling as an engine for local economic growth
2. Local bookstores as a catalyst for new writers and readers
3. Bookstore activities as a focal point for community life

Independent booksellers share some of these characteristics with other institutions. All local retailers, for example, are a better engine for local growth than their chainstore competitors, but the local advantage provided by independent bookstores is arguably even greater. Other organizations provide a gathering point for community activities, but independent bookstores often provide a program of national literary and political leaders who can help energize the local community. Ultimately, it’s the interplay of these three types of activities that has made modern, independent bookselling something unique and valuable.

Ironically, independent booksellers find themselves in this position of responsibility just at the time when they are most under siege. During the same period when independent bookselling has become so valuable to the community, their ranks have become depleted by the relentless expansion of chainstores, the lure of the Internet, and the basic indifference of mall developers. The number of independent bookstores has been cut in half, while the chainstores have more than doubled in size. Although the situation has stabilized a bit in the last couple of years, the survival of independent bookselling is always a day-to-day thing. It may sound melodramatic, but what is at stake is the quality of life in the many communities served by the good independent booksellers. A community with a good bookstore is in a much better position to withstand the relentless pressures that have led to the "malling" of America.

This new, important role for independent booksellers is not something that any of them set out to do. Most are far too modest to claim any such pretensions.

During the 25 years or so that we have been in business at Book Passage, we’ve met most of the booksellers around the country and consider many of them our personal friends. They are a diverse, hard-working group, who usually work for little more than the people they employ. They are hard-nosed business people who, in this case, are tempered with the idealism and social conscience that comes from being gatekeepers of America’s literature. They are a resource that the United States can ill afford to lose.

1. Independent Booksellers: An Engine for Local Economic Growth

Do you want to jump start your local economy? Bring in an independent bookstore. Studies show that locally-owned retailers provide a much larger boost to the local economy than chainstores. And among local retailers, independent booksellers provide an even greater catalyst for money flowing back into the community. In 2004, the firm of Civic Economics studied the Andersonville district of Chicago, one of the city’s livelier neighborhoods. Ten local businesses were analyzed - one of them Ann Christopherson’s Women and Children First bookstore - and they were compared against ten chainstore competitors. The economists looked at both the direct effects of local spending by the businesses, such as wages, local procurement, charitable contributions, etc., as well as the indirect effects of the as little as possible locally and withdraw the money from the locality as soon as possible.

While an increased local economic impact of 70% is very substantial, the increase generated by independent booksellers alone is likely to be even higher. An earlier study in Austin, Texas, in 2002, compared the economic benefit to the community of Steve Bercu’s Bookpeople, an independent bookstore and a local music store with a Borders store. The study concluded that the two independent stores had a local economic impact that was more than 240% higher. continuing expenditure of the money in the community using the standard IMPLAN method of calculation. The study showed a dramatic difference between the locally owned businesses and their chainstore competitors. Locally owned businesses recycled about 70% more money into the overall local economy. (The complete study can be found at

For every $100 in consumer spending with a local firm, the study concluded, $73 remains in the Chicago economy as compared with $43 for a chainstore. Locally-owned businesses generate a 70% Local Premium in enhanced economic impact. A difference of this magnitude is not surprising. Unlike chainstores, local retailers deposit their money in local banks, buy from local producers, give to local charities, and hire an array of local accountants, lawyers, architects, builders and other professionals. Chainstores, by contrast, spendas little as possible locally and withdraw the money from the locality as soon as possible.

While an increased local economic impact of 70% is very substantial, the increase generated by independent booksellers alone is likely to be even higher. An earlier study in Austin, Texas, in 2002, compared the economic benefit to the community of Steve Bercu’s Bookpeople, an independent bookstore and a local music store with a Borders store. The study concluded that the two independent stores had a local economic impact that was more than 240% higher. Independent bookstores often have a dramatically higher local economic impact than their chainstore competitors. This is partly because many such stores function at a level that economists describe as "traded industries" businesses, in other words, that bring in revenue and customers from outside the region. This takes many forms. Richard Howorth’s Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, sponsors a three-day Conference for the Book with the University that brings in several hundred people annually. Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, chairs the seven-day Miami Book Fair International, which brings in a huge number of visitors from several countries. In our own case, the two annual Book Passage writing conferences - The Mystery Writers Conference and the Travel Writers & Photographers Conference - bring 300 people annually to Marin County for a five-day period.

These types of activities all bring substantial money into the local economy, while the local outlets of chainstores do nothing even remotely comparable. But it is not just the big, dramatic events that give a boost to the local economy. Independent booksellers, like Book Passage, with a big list of author events, find themselves selling autographed books over the internet to customers around the country. Many customers attending author events - some of whom come from a great distance - dine at local restaurants, shop at nearby stores, and stay at local hotels. Many independent booksellers, including Book Passage, host events at restaurants or hotels near the store, generating business for those establishments. Book Passage’s Cooks with Books program in a typical year generates more than 400 meals at local restaurants. Writing classes and cultural classes are another source of income for the local community. These classes, which were largely invented at Book Passage, are now taking hold in independent bookstores around the country. Last year alone Book Passage paid over $130,000 to more than 50 freelance teachers, many of whom are writers living in Marin County, and these teachers often build upon these classes to gain further revenue from their students in the form of private tutoring, travel groups, and similar activity. Like the two major conferences, these classes and extended workshops often attract people from out of the community who stay in local hotels, eat at local restaurants, and benefit other merchants.

The Hospice Used Books Program at Book Passage is another example of a program that recycles revenue back into the community. This is program not only raises money but also has a direct effect on many people’s lives. Last year Hospice raised over $60,000 through sales at Book Passage. The image that comes to mind when you think about an independent bookstore may not be that of an economic catalyst for the community. But in terms of generating economic benefit for the surrounding area, there are few better investments that a community can make.

2. Independent Booksellers: A Catalyst for New Writers and Readers

If independent booksellers were forced out of business, most people - even diehard customers of independent bookstores - assume that they could find the books they want somewhere else. But that’s not likely to be the case. In the book business, more than in any other, the quality of what is created at the producer or publisher level is largely determined by how those books are sold to consumers at the retail level. If independent bookselling dies, many types of books will die with it. A World Without Independents To see the chilling effect on new books, imagine a book business in which there are no independent booksellers. Publishing, in that type of unfortunate scenario, would resemble a funnel. Many thousands of writers, working perhaps through hundreds of publishers, would still be trying to reach millions of potential readers. But they would find their chances of doing so more and more constricted until their books were finally forced to get past a small handful of buyers for the chains and warehouse clubs - the narrow neck of the funnel.

The funnel analogy is not far-fetched. The chains all buy nationally, with sometimes a single buyer in each category deciding whether a book will appear in any of their stores. Borders, a few years back, reportedly had two fiction buyers for the entire chain- one for authors A to M, and the other for N-Z. Even now - at a time when independent booksellers provide an alternate means for a book to reach the public - the decision by a chainstore buyer to pass up a book can have a deadly effect on that book’s future. The refusal of the major chains to carry a book usually causes the publisher to rethink their marketing of the book, often cutting the advertising budget and letting the book languish unless something miraculous occurs to revive sales. Often it is even worse than that. One of the dirty little secrets of publishing is that publishers sometimes pre-screen books with chain buyers - particularly a book by a new author or one with an unproven or controversial subject matter. If the chain says no to the book, the publisher either forces the author to change it or decides not to publish it at all. This is a nasty practice that seems to be getting more and more common.

Without independent booksellers to perform the crucial early marketing for new authors or unconventional books, the publishing industry would most likely deteriorate very quickly into a business of celebrity authors, established best-sellers, and formula books. The implications would be dire for free speech and a vigorous debate of public issues. Books on public affairs would probably be limited only to those that reflected the political viewpoint of the people at the top of the corporate pyramid. From the point of view of new authors, could there possibly be a worse scenario than having the fate of their books decided by a pair of chainstore buyers? Well, actually there could be. A recent issue of Publishers Weekly reported that Borders is up for sale and that the most likely buyer is Barnes & Noble. Those two buyers may be shrinking to one.

The Impact of Independent Bookstores

Put independent booksellers back into the picture, and new authors and new types of writing have a much better chance of succeeding. Although they may only be 15% or so of the overall book business, with certain types of books - particularly books in their early stages - independent booksellers play a key role. Independent booksellers are crucial in promoting new authors and new types of literature. This is well recognized by publishers - by the editors and publicists, at least, if not the corporate bean-counters. Book publicists within the major houses often direct their marketing of new authors and quality books to independent bookstores, with advance copies, special meetings, book club promotions, and author events. The publisher hopes those booksellers will like the book and recommend it to customers for some crucial early sales. Publishers use the positive feedback that they get from the independents as an impetus to market the book more vigorously. This whole process is the impetus behind the Booksense program, which is a recognition that new, quality literature often gets its start at independent bookstores. Many well-known authors got their start through just this type of process - authors like Anne Lamott, Khaled Hosseini, Amy Tan, Frank McCourt, Michael Chabon, and Ayelet Waldman, just to name a few.

For independent booksellers, this is an important part of their business, as they get to introduce new authors to their customers and sell new works of literarture - often through non-conventional methods, such as the Book Passage First Editions Club.

Once such a book by a new author begins to sell and gain traction in the marketplace, the chains usually then decide to promote it. In some cases they may have to go back and buy the book if they passed on it in the first place. But a decision to promote a book after it is already on the road to success is not the same as carrying it in the crucial early period when early sales make all the difference.

New Ideas From the Bottom Up

Most independent booksellers aren’t content simply to sell books from the top down. They are usually pushing publishers from the bottom, suggesting topics that might sell in their community, giving feedback on customer preferences, and pushing the careers of local authors. This "push from the bottom" is a way of ameliorating the tendency of national publishers to assume that one size fits all and that what is read in Topeka, Kansas, is just fine for readers in Mill Valley, California. Independent booksellers often work closely with small and local publishers, providing mix of local books that may not be available nationally. Many of these small publishers would be hard pressed to stay in business if they only had the national chains to deal with. Some independent booksellers go even further, working to bring new authors into the system. Writing classes and conferences are an important part of Book Passage’s operation, and other booksellers are starting to adopt similar programs.

These classes teach the craft of writing and put new writers into contact with agents, editors, and publishers. For writers like Sheldon Siegel, this has led directly to a successful publishing contract. The process tends to take on a life of its own. Linda Watanabe McFerrin, who began her writing career at a Book Passage conference and has since gone on to found Left Coast Writers, has herself become a B.P. writing teacher and helps nurture the careers of writers like Tess Uriza Holthe, the author of When the Elephants Dance.

3. Independent Booksellers: A Focal Point for Community Life

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg first coined the phrase "A Third Place" (which he contrasted to the first and second places of home and work). "Social well-being and psychological health," he maintains, "depend upon community."

"What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably - a ‘place on the corner -’" Oldenburg must have had independent bookstores in mind when he developed these ideas, because in the last couple of decades they have assumed the role of the community focal point "the place on the corner" in many parts of America.

What are the characteristics that make an institution worthy of the title "A Third Place?" Authenticity is one of them. Prepackaged malls with piped-in music won’t do, nor will a manipulative format and an indifferent management. Independent bookstores by contrast, are places where people gather "easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably." The bookseller/ proprietors are almost always people you can trust - residents of the community, deeply involved in civic life, and tenacious about the things in which they believe.

An example is Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover Books in Denver, who has spent thousands of dollars fighting an unwarranted subpoena of a customer’s purchasing records. Another is Neal Coonerty, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, who ran the store out of a tent while he led the local recovery from the 1989 earthquake. Still another is Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books, who - unlike the two local chainstores - kept Salman Rushdie’s books on his shelves during the height of the terror against him, taking a firebomb through the store window for his efforts. No corporate design team could manufacture this type of authenticity. The role of independent bookstores as community gathering places took a whole new turn when the stores started featuring author events on a regular basis. A decade or so ago an event where an author spoke and answered questions was a rarity, but a group of independent stores helped convince publishers that authors and readers should discuss books in the context of a bookstore. The popularity of author events has grown to the point where they have now become a staple of many stores.

Book Passage has over 500 author events per year. This steady stream of authors through the bookstore - many of them prominent, many of them experts in their field - is an unprecedented phenomenon. As a community resource, there is really nothing with which to compare it. Local readers now have the luxury of meeting many of the world’s great writers and opinion leaders at their own doorstep. The presence of great writers in the bookstore has been a huge stimulus to discussions about the books. Although reading has been slipping throughout the nation as a percentage of the population, you would never know it if you visited a good independent store. The level of interest is more intense than ever.

The author’s speech at the event is important, but it is sometimes over-shadowed by the liveliness of the Q-and-A session that follows. Often it doesn’t end there, with discussions continuing around the floor, in the autograph line, and into the café. Sometimes the author event is a catalyst for even further meetings and activities. When Gloria Steinem appeared at Book Passage one Saturday morning, she organized the young girls in the audience into a group that continued to meet in the store every Saturday morning for months thereafter. Author events in independent stores around the country have led to thousands of such informal meetings and community organizing opportunities. Author appearances provide a major opportunity for charitable fund-raising, with independent stores around the country tailoring their fund-raising programs to meet local needs. Book Passage and the Bank of Marin designate an author event each quarter as a fund-raiser for the Marin Literacy Program. Sometimes an event is scheduled as a fund-raiser for Hospice of Marin, raising additional funds to go with the more than $60,000 raised annually in sales. An appearance by President Jimmy Carter was the occasion for a fund-raiser for the Canal Community Alliance. A similar appearance by Rosalyn Carter became a fundraiser for Buckelew House.

Sometimes the interaction of authors and the community creates an event that is almost magical in its dimensions. After Hurricane Katrina, Amy Tan and other prominent authors asked Book Passage to host a benefit for the victims. In less than a week this network of authors and community people put together a program featuring 35 famous authors that raised more than $40,000 for the victims. Author events sometimes lead to writing classes taught by that author. The entire program of classes at Book Passage began as an effort to provide some supplemental income for a local author. Fifteen years later, the program of B.P.U. classes is bigger than ever, with more than 300 classes per year. Students in such classes often embark on writing careers, getting their book published and reappearing at the store for an author event of their own.

There are few moments more touching in the life of the bookstore than when a favorite customer returns as an author. One type of interaction spawns another. Bookstore cafés - and even corners within the bookstore stacks - provide a meeting place for meetings, both formal and informal. Independent stores have become a haven for writing groups, and at Book Passage they have often sprung up as the outgrowth of a class that the members took. Book clubs often meet in the store, sometimes planning their meetings around the appearance of an author whose work they may be reading. Community groups meet at Book Passage as well, following their business meeting with snacks from the café and a presentation about new books.

Sometimes the bookstore simply becomes a community meeting place, as when the Marin Education Fund recently decided to hold an all-day meeting at Book Passage to discuss equity in education.

That decision was based, no doubt, on the fact that people in the community are used to gathering at the store and that the Book Passage News & Reviews, with a circulation of over 35,000, is a good way to publicize such an event.

The New Role
Without warning or fanfare, independent booksellers have taken on a new role in their communities. They have become engines for local economic growth, advocates for new and local authors, and gathering places for a wide range of local groups and community activities. But they are still booksellers. The sale of books is crucial, and unless they sell a sufficient number of books the whole enterprise could come to a halt, leaving a hole in community life. What makes such sales possible, and what stands in the way? We’ll take a look at that next time.

View Calendar of Events & Classes

Shopping cart

View your shopping cart.

Upcoming Programs