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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.

Indie publishers have much to learn from these bookstores. Readers want to read works by local writers; this is why bookstores often have “local authors” shelves. Just like people are increasingly concerned with where their food, clothes, and cell phones come from, they want to know where their books are written and published. Indie publishers need to declare themselves loud and proud members of the community, while remaining transparent about their publishing methods.

Curation comes naturally to publishers—it’s our job. As long as we continue to uphold both our industry’s and our own personal standards, there shouldn’t be any problems here.

Of the three C’s Raffaelli identified, convening can be the most challenging. Unlike Indie bookstores, most small publishers simply don’t have enough space to host in-house events. Fortunately, if you’re a publisher, you still have a couple of options.

Even if you can’t throw a party yourself doesn’t mean you can’t show up to one you’ve been invited to. All those events at your local bookstore? Go to them. Know your local arts scene and participate as much as you can. Remember that other small businesses want to build community as much as you do. See if you can co-host events with bookstores, libraries, and coffee shops. You should all know each other anyways.

If you’re an Indie author, think about how the three C’s apply to you. How can you work with local businesses to build community? Think about how you can become a curator; perhaps you can host content related to your book on your blog. Go to local author events and writing workshops. Be creative—you can think outside the box, you’re a writer!

Technology changes fast these days. Indie booksellers, publishers, and authors are more adaptable than their larger, corporate counter-parts. Don’t let that advantage go to waste.

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