The Media School

Ironically intangible: perception of independent bookstores doesn’t match reality

April 18th, 2019 by
Photograph by Peyton Crantford

Amani Haddox is student at IU and a voracious reader. He frequently goes to bookstores, preferring to hold books when he shops for them. Despite his preferences, he worries that the convenience and variety of online shopping is killing independent bookshops.

Amani Haddox, a voracious reader and 18-year-old student at IU, loves shopping at bookstores. He has enjoyed browsing bookshelves since he was young, but he fears the market for independent vendors is failing.

“So, it’s dying, but at a slow pace,” he said. “Online is on the rise. Finding actual, like, physical books? No. That’s dying.”

In the mid 2000s the rise of online book vendors, primarily Amazon, fractured the book market. Haddox embodies a belief that online vendors continually force brick-and-mortar stores out of business, despite evidence to the contrary. Independent bookstores are on the rise.

Amazon entered the book-selling business in 1995. Over the past 24 years, it has improved its service, giving consumers convenience and variety when purchasing books. Amazon is not the only online book vendor. Nonetheless, the qualities it helped develop have become synonymous with online shopping.

“Online shopping is a lot more convenient,” Haddox said. “So, if I can’t find the book that I wanted from the brick-and-mortar place, then I would go online. And I would see what they would have.”

This change struck bookstores hard. The effect was so strong that in 2016 Eric Brown and his wife Catherine could afford to buy Caveat Emptor for a low price. The store has obtained and sold antique, used and collectible books in Bloomington since 1971.

“Essentially the market had devalued books so much that, unfortunately, the value of this place was a lot less than it was 10, 15 years ago,” he said.

Despite the distortion in the book-selling market, independent retailers were resilient and have even begun to increase in number. According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), sales at independent bookstores rose 5 percent in 2017.

Photograph by Peyton Crantford

Michael Glab is a freelance writer, local radio host and employee at The Book Corner. He attributes the store's success to customers' loyalty and hesitance to shop at companies like Amazon.

Brown sees this increase as an economic correction after a volatile change in the way consumers demand books.

“So, when you hit a floor that low, and it really did get rocked, a regression to the mean is going to happen,” he said. “The only question remaining is that when it comes back up and regresses to the mean, is that plateau where it comes back to sustainable?”

Part of the strategy for independent vendors to maintain their relevance is to offer a more specialized experience to customers than they can find online, according to a May 12, 2018, article from “The Guardian.” Haddox suggested his appreciation of bookstores comes from the intangible nature of book shopping.

“So, I prefer going to the bricks and mortars,” he said. “I don’t know, I like the feel of it. If I’m doing online, I feel like I’m losing the sense of finding the right book for me.”

Michael Glab, a freelance writer and part-time employee at The Book Corner, said books are a powerful tool for shops because customers can connect with them in store.

“You have it in your hand,” he said. “You feel it. You smell it. You touch it. You read it. You hear the pages. It is yours.”

However, the fallout from the rise of internet purchasing didn’t change what customers were looking for. It changed how they were looking for it, according to “The Guardian” article. Bookstores’ focuses, the article argues, had to shift because their customers were demanding the same product but with a different experience.

“Online shopping is a lot more convenient. So, if I can’t find the book that I wanted from the brick and mortar place, then I would go online. And I would see what they would have.” – Amani Haddox, IU student

Brown echoed this idea when discussing the drive to adapt to increasing demand for online shopping.

“That’s why the big 90s and 2000s craze of mixing coffee with books,” he said. “The only ones that really made it through the devaluing that the internet and e-readers did were the ones that had cafes. Or they sold something else: trinkets or something like that.”

Two of Bloomington’s largest remaining independent bookstores, Caveat Emptor and The Book Corner, survive for different reasons. Brown identifies his business as “niche,” but maintains that “we know what we’re doing.”

“I will make the argument until we have closed up that there is a certain expertise that we can offer that you just can’t get by clicking on Amazon,” he said.

The Book Corner, on the other hand, offers a more generalized stock, ranging from Shakespearian poetry to coffee table books about color theory. However, Glab argued The Book Corner remains open because of customer loyalty.

“We survive because we live on people who say, ‘I’m going to continue coming here. I want to support independent. And I don’t want to give my money to Amazon,’” he said.

Consumers seem to be “regressing” to the analog method of book shopping, according to Brown. Sales are up and stores are open.

Haddox exemplifies this trend. He has become uncomfortable with the idea of shopping for books online.

“I would just not feel right,” he said.” I guess I’m old fashioned, in a way.”