Deseret News, April 6, 2015
Weller Book Works, a family owned business located in the historic Trolley Square in Salt Lake City, has endured its share of economic ups and downs since it first opened in 1929.
Seemingly every business cycle has brought with it predictions of collapse along with expressions of sympathy from the store’s loyal following.
“All of my life, including the time prior to working here at Weller’s, I have heard of the demise of the independent bookstore,” said Katherine Weller, the new-book manager and wife of Tony Weller, the current owner. “In fact, my father-in-law Sam could cite several times when people told him, ‘Oh, bookstores are going to die.’ ”
But they haven’t.
Weller’s and many other local bookstores have survived radio, television, chain bookstores — and now they are finding their way through the digital age.
While some book retailers have responded to the Internet and electronic reading devices by either scaling up to Wal-Mart sized chains or scaling down to an online only outlet, independent bookstores have found a viable void staying just as they are — local, intimate and independent.
Buy-local campaigns persuading customers that neighborhood shops are an integral part of the community have definitely helped. By staying small, independent sellers have shown they can more nimbly adapt to the unique interests of a local clientele than a larger, impersonal national chain. Embracing the Internet as a source of sales along with the decline in large stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble has also restored business once thought lost.
In the past five years, the number of indie bookstore companies has grown by 16 percent, according to the American BookSellers Association.
As a neighborhood’s demographics change, so does its tastes. A neighborhood that has a large religious population would benefit from a bookstore that was well stocked in religious books. Or, if a younger or more ethnically diverse population moves in, the local bookstore can adapt to the change more easily than a larger chain, retailers said.
Orphan said that another factor to surviving changes in the industry is the success of the Buy Local movement in America. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance published survey results showing how local-first movements benefitted local stores.
“Businesses in places with a Buy Local initiative reported an average sales increase of 9.3 percent in 2014, compared to 4.9 percent for those elsewhere,” the ILSR stated. “Among the independent retailers surveyed, those in cities with an active Buy Local initiative reported higher average holiday sales gains (5.7 percent) than those in cities without such a campaign (4.2 percent).”
The idea behind Buy Local is that local companies contribute more to the community and therefore supporting local businesses supports the community.
And research shows Buy Local is not just sales pitch.
While independent bookstores have survived the scare of the big box chains, they have a more formidable force to navigate in the Internet, with its advantages of convenience, speed and discount pricing.
“Amazon is our biggest nemesis,” said McKenna Jordan, the owner of mystery genre bookstore Murder By The Book, located just outside of Rice University in Houston. “I think that if any independent bookstore owner you talk to doesn’t immediately say Amazon, they’re fooling themselves.”
Part of ILSR’s survey asked independent retailers to rank threats to their business from 1 to 5, with 5 being the worst.
“Among independent retailers, which comprised almost half of the survey responses, ‘competition from Internet retailers’ not only received the highest average score (3.98), but was ranked as a 4 or 5 by 71 percent of respondents. Only 40 percent ranked ‘competition from large brick-and-mortar chains’ at the same level of signiﬁcance,” wrote ILSR.
Jordan echoed this sentiment. She said that despite Murder By The Book’s struggles to keep its ledger in the black, she has no problem referring customers to the local Barnes & Nobel when necessary.
“At this point, we don’t consider Barnes & Noble a rival,” said Jordan. “As a matter of fact we’re happy to pick up the phone if we’re out of something and call Barnes & Noble and see if they have it because we want to send shoppers to brick-and-mortar bookstores and the stores within our community.”
The Wellers have combated the Internet by embracing it. Katharine Weller says that was a major part of their rebranding as a company.
“We actually have been selling books over the Internet pretty early for an independent bookstore; back in the ’90s we started that,” she said.