Indie bookstores embrace the side hustle

Donna Paz Kaufman has grown used to hearing the melodramatic doom and gloom soundtrack around bookstores. “Every decade I’ve been in this business, somebody has said bookstores are going to die, and it was for a whole different reason,” she says. Since 1992, she’s been consulting with and training independent bookstore owners on how to navigate this ever-changing industry.

The threats have been many: CD-ROM, audio books, e-books, big-box bookstores, online book giants. And yet, Kaufman doesn’t worry about the future of books and bookstores. “There’s something to be said for the human aspect of knowing a good book, and not having it relate to any algorithm,” she says.

In fact, bookstores are making a comeback. Just take a look at the membership numbers of American Booksellers Association (ABA), a trade organization that works with independent bookstores: In 2009, ABA membership hit a low, with just 1,651 locations. Like a phoenix, that number has risen for the last seven years, reaching more than 2,320 locations in 2017. Book sales in independent stores are also up. According to the ABA, book sales in U.S. indie shops grew more than 10 percent in 2015 over the previous year, and in 2016 sales at independent bookstore were up nearly 5 percent.

Even Amazon is getting on board with the brick-and-mortar concept. So far, the online giant has opened 11 physical bookstores across the U.S. Shoppers can peruse the shelves of front-facing books (so you see the cover, like you do on the site) that are, primarily, crowdsourced—they’re rated at least four stars by customers. Reviews that sit next to the books were taken from online customer reviews.

If anything, the new Amazon stores are a study in contrasts with mom-and-pop shops. The Amazon store in Chicago, for example, feels more like a Best Buy than a neighborhood bookstore. It’s transactional, rather than connective. Efficient, rather than cozy. It’s a great place to come and grab the latest bestseller, but not a place where you’d go to lose yourself.