How Independent Bookstores Have Thrived in Spite of

Ryan Raffaelli set out to discover how independent bookstores managed to survive and even thrive in spite of competition from Amazon and other online retailers. His initial findings reveal how much consumers still value community and personal contact.
by Carmen Nobel (with video by Amelia Kunhardt)

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Independent bookstores provide a story of hope by focusing on core values that include community, curation, and convening. (Video by Amelia Kunhardt)

When burst onto the nascent online retail scene in 1995, the future seemed bleak for brick-and-mortar independent bookstores—which already faced competition from superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Indeed, between 1995 and 2000, the number of independent bookstores in the United States plummeted 43 percent, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the promotion of independent bookstores.

But then a funny thing happened. While pressure from Amazon forced Borders out of business in 2011, indie bookstores staged an unexpected comeback. Between 2009 and 2015, the ABA reported a 35 percent growth in the number of independent booksellers, from 1,651 stores to 2,227.

This surprising resurgence piqued the interest of Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School, who studies how mature organizations and industries faced with technological change reinvent themselves. Raffaelli has termed this line of research “technology reemergence.” It began with his study of the Swiss watch industry, which collectively reinvented itself (and thus survived) in the wake of digital watches. Five years ago, he set out to discover how independent bookstores managed to survive and even thrive in spite of Amazon and other online retailers.

Raffaelli is a field researcher by training. His study on independent bookselling includes more than 200 interviews and focus groups with bookstore owners, publishers, and prominent authors; field visits to dozens of bookstores in 13 states; 91 hours of observing bookstore activity and industry conferences; and an analysis of 915 newspaper and trade publication articles that mentioned independent bookselling in some fashion. He even attended a training course on how to open an independent bookstore.

Here are some of Raffaelli’s key findings so far, based on what he has found to be the “3 C’s” of independent bookselling’s resurgence: community, curation, and convening.

  • Community: Independent booksellers were some of the first to champion the idea of localism; bookstore owners across the nation promoted the idea of consumers supporting their local communities by shopping at neighborhood businesses. Indie bookstores won customers back from Amazon, Borders, and other big players by stressing a strong connection to local community values.
  • Curation: Independent booksellers began to focus on curating inventory that allowed them to provide a more personal and specialized customer experience. Rather than only recommending bestsellers, they developed personal relationships with customers by helping them discover up-and-coming authors and unexpected titles.
  • Convening: Independent booksellers also started to promote their stores as intellectual centers for convening customers with likeminded interestsoffering lectures, book signings, game nights, children’s story times, young adult reading groups, even birthday parties. “In fact, some bookstores now host over 500 events a year that bring people together,” Raffaelli says.
  • While all this was happening on a local level, there was important top-down work going on at the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the promotion of independent bookstores. The ABA served as a glue to bind likeminded players together—facilitating partnerships between bookstores and other local businesses, for example. The ABA also strengthened the collective identity of indie bookstores by helping its members share best practices, such as how to use social media to promote special events.

Raffaelli plans to release an initial version of the study in 2018; in the meantime, he has published a multi-page abstract with an overview of the initial findings. Its working title: “Reframing Collective Identity in Response to Multiple Technological Discontinuities: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores.”

“The theoretical and managerial lessons we can learn from independent bookstores have implications for a wide array of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses facing technological change,” Raffaelli says. “But this has been an especially fascinating industry to study because indie booksellers provide us with a story of hope.”

Related Reading:

Technology Reemergence: Creating New Value for Old Innovations
Faber-Castell Doubles Down on the Pencil
Has Apple Reinvented the Watch?

What do you think?

Readers, we want to hear from you.  What do you think the future of brick-and-mortar retailing looks like? Can you point to success stories of brick-and-mortar retail in your local community? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.  You can connect with Professor Raffaelli on Twitter at @ryanlraffaelli and/or by using the hashtag #technology_reemergence.

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