The Three C's of Indie Bookstores

Before 2008, there were more than half a dozen bookstores in my town. We had everything from a big box-store to inexpensive used bookstores where even a kid like myself could afford to shop. For one reason or another—the financial crisis, high rents, or Amazon—those stores are all gone now.

Just when it looked like my literary world might shrink down to a single college bookstore, a new Indie shop opened. The owners seemed much too optimistic to me; I honestly didn’t expect them to last the year. Today, that same bookstore is a thriving arts center in my community.

This same pattern repeated itself all over the country. Borders is dead and buried, many used bookstores can’t turn a profit anymore, but indie bookshops are alive and well.

Assistant professor at Harvard Business School, Ryan Raffaelli, is studying this phenomenon. How have Indie bookstores succeeded in the wake of technological change that hit other industries—including publishing—so hard?

Raffaelli identifies three characteristics most Indie bookstores share: community, curation, and convening.

  • Community: Indie bookstores win loyalty from readers who want to support local businesses, something people came to value after seeing beloved neighborhood stores close their doors, unable to keep up with online retailers.

  • Curation: Indie booksellers have limited inventory space, so they manage their selections carefully. Knowledgeable staff can also give customers personalized recommendations.

  • Convening: As I saw in my town, Indie bookstores are community centers for readers, writers, and artists. Stores host everything from author readings, to discussion groups, to open mic nights. They are much more than just places to shop.