October 29, 2013
Independent Bookstores: Turning a Page in the Book of Community
They really do exist. Quiet and unassuming, they peek through the urban landscape like the delicate ferns and lichen that emerge from a fire-ravaged forest. They don’t shout their existence, but discreetly stand as a testament to endurance and persistence. They are independent bookstores.
I feared they had disappeared, like dinosaurs or Dodo birds. However, unlike the stuff of history and fairy tales, independent bookstores are real and surviving (if not thriving) despite the presence of great giants with crushing purchasing power like Costco, Barnes and Noble, and the late Crowne Books and Borders. These resilient bastions of the printed word have endured the behemoth Amazon.com and, while fewer in number than at the beginning of the century, they are making a surprising comeback.
“How?” you may ask.
I posed this very question to Ms. Leigh Odum, the owner of one of these little pearls: Leigh’s Favorite Books in Sunnyvale, California.
Leigh’s Favorite Books
The Little Shop That Could
I discovered Leigh’s Favorite Books by accident – a friend posted a link to her site on Facebook as encouragement to support a small, local business. Since I was in the midst of independently publishing my first novel (Embracing the Elephant ), I was interested in learning more about the independent bookstores that I hoped would carry my book. So I contacted Leigh and asked for an interview.
When I arrived, Leigh suggested that we conduct the interview at one of the cafe tables just outside the shop. The shop was quiet for the moment and, as it was a gorgeous October day in California, both of us welcomed the opportunity to be outdoors. Fortified with coffee from a boutique cafe a few doors down, Leigh and I talked as the locals walked by, some of them waving. In her naturally soft voice, Leigh greeted many by name.
Leigh’s Favorite Books is located on historic, tree-lined Murphy Avenue in Sunnyvale – a city in California’s famous “Silicon Valley” best known for high-tech businesses, high-profile residents like Apple’s Steve Wozniak, and its well-run city government (read the interview with then-city-manager Tom Lewcock in the wake of a 1993 exploratory visit to Sunnyvale by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore).
Founded in 2004 by Leigh Odum and her husband, Leigh’s Favorite Books occupies a modest 1,600 square feet and carries approximately 40,000 unique titles, both new and used. Considering that a Barnes and Noble megastore averages 20,000 square-feet and carries 80,000 titles*, the size of Leigh’s inventory is impressive (the secret is a basement – a rarity in California – which enables her to buy at optimum quantities, stock one of everything on the shelves, and store the rest until needed).
* Source: The Washington Post, “Independent bookstores add a new chapter” by Neely Tucker, August 17, 2011.
Initially, Leigh offered only the used books for sale, even forming a synergistic relationship with Amazon.com to sell some of the books through Amazon’s partner program. In keeping with the technology focus of Silicon Valley, Leigh’s husband (a software engineer) developed a sophisticated inventory-tracking system which they implemented in 2007. It is so good that the couple recently began to license the program to other independent bookstores. Ye olde book shoppe’s roots reached comfortably into the high-tech arena.
With time, Leigh’s customer base grew and, despite their appreciation of the used-book selection, they requested newer titles as well. In response, Leigh began to stock books from the New York Times Best Seller List. Soon, however, she discovered that her clientele had something different in mind. The focus changed to award-winning publications (Booker and Pulitzer prize winners, for example), more mysteries, science fiction (a lot of science fiction), and real science books such as Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – books reflective of the tastes and interests of her customers. She took note of the titles that were most on their lips, catered to their requests, and located one-of-a-kind books when possible.
Just as Leigh envisioned, the shop became a place of entertainment – a shopping “experience” both pleasant and instructional. Visitors could enjoy the tactile pleasure of holding the latest bestseller while discussing its merits with the expert behind the counter. Local engineers dropped in as a break from their jobs and to discover what new treasure might be found on the shelving. Hers was a store where lively conversations would lead to the discovery of a corresponding volume the visitor never before knew they had to have.
On-line shopping was convenient and cheap, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as Leigh’s Favorite Books.
Today, Murphy Avenue is a vibrant part of the Sunnyvale community. There are still many bars and restaurants, but they too have been renovated and boast some of the best dining in the city.
Leigh’s Favorite Books is in the middle of it all. Patrons of the neighboring businesses drop in after dinner or lunch; local workers leave the tension of their cubicles and offices behind to browse through the aisles most afternoons; the colorful and ever-changing window displays catch the attention of strollers, beckoning them in.
Inside, the shop is full, but uncluttered and welcoming: an island of calm beyond the busy street. Not long ago, Leigh added some book-related gifts to the store’s inventory, further improving the shopping experience. However, it is clear that the main focus remains books – shiny new novels nestled against the spines of the old. Leigh offers a trade-in plan for gently-used volumes – click here for a description of the program.
The staff is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their wares. When I ask Leigh what she looks for in an employee, she brightens. When she interviews them, she asks for a book recommendation and then watches as they describe their choice. She looks for someone whose face lights up – I imagine just as hers does when I ask my questions.
Nearly four years ago, Leigh and her husband welcomed son Yousef into their lives and, five months ago, another “child” was born in the form of an auxiliary shop next door to the current one. The new store, Bookasaurus, is devoted to children. Craft classes for kids are conducted weekly and, just as in the movie You’ve Got Mail, regular story time (Tuesdays and Saturdays) is a big event.
Which Begs the Question…
Despite having spent a pleasant hour with Leigh, learning of her background, experience, and vision, I didn’t think I was any closer to understanding how she and other independent bookstores have survived. The obstacles, like Amazon, are enormous. Even huge players succumbed: Borders died in 2011; Crowne Books is ancient history; Waldenbooks is still around, but in reduced numbers; B. Dalton was gobbled up by Barnes and Noble in 1987 and was finally liquidated in 2010. Even gigantic Barnes and Noble is reputed to have dodged the extinction bullet only because of its introduction of The Nook to compete with Amazon’s Kindle.
So how do these small entrepreneurs do it? And, what’s more, how is it possible that The American Booksellers Association (a national trade organization for independently owned bookstores) was able to report 7% growth in 2010. They had 400 members in 2005 – now there are 1,830**. How is it possible that independent bookstores are not only surviving, but growing in number?
Having Borders close its doors last year seems to have helped – former customers now frequent the local independents, like Leigh’s. Mandatory implementation by Amazon of sales tax on California-bound goods this past July reduces the price differentiation Amazon formerly enjoyed. However, it’s still a risky proposition to maintain a bookstore in this environment, isn’t it?
I scoured the notes of my interview with Leigh for clues, reflected on what was happening around us as Leigh and I spoke. I read some great articles (see links below), trying to understand the phenomena.
And maybe, just maybe, I have the beginnings of the answer. Not surprisingly, it is an answer that applies to most successful businesses: personalized customer service that reflects the needs of the community. That’s what Leigh and her counterparts offer – the personal touch.
Leigh listens to her customers, knows many by name, keeps their perspective in mind as she stocks her shelves and plans for that reading area that is not yet a reality (but more feasible now, with the move of the children’s section to Bookasaurus). She provides an environment for her patrons in keeping with her product, but designed with them in mind. She is mindful of and an active participant in the community – when she speaks of her neighbors, her tales were tinged with a warmth that matches the day. Big box and on-line stores simply can’t offer those things.
The survival of bookstores comes at a time when consumers are being urged to “Think Globally; Act Locally,” as local farmer’s markets blossom, and the urge to participate in the success of one’s local community is strong.
Could it be that, with old-fashioned values and customer service, businesses like Leigh’s Favorite Books will continue to exist, to grow, and prosper? Can it be that such stores will not go the way of the dinosaurs but will, instead, be considered cutting-edge and “cool” in light of the local angle? Will we continue to see such small-business concerns grow and prosper, like those rudimentary ferns and lichens after a fire, eventually becoming the lush underpinnings of a strong community?
Oh, I hope so.
** Source: The Washington Post, “Independent bookstores add a new chapter” by Neely Tucker, August 17, 2011.
More about the survival of independent bookstores
- Why we need local bookstores – Chicago Tribute
- How Kepler’s In Menlo Park, California Was Saved – The Washington Post
- Ode to the Bookstore – The Daily Beast