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The most recent chapter in the story of American bookstores has taken a surprising twist. Barnes & Noble, one of the main players in the wave of market consolidation that once threatened the future of indie bookstores, is now losing share to mom-and-pops.
Barnes & Noble is eliminating store positions and changing its labor model in an effort to cut costs, according to MarketWatch. And Amazon.com isn’t the sole reason for the big box bookseller’s continued slip. Dan Cullen, a representative for the independent bookseller trade group, American Booksellers Association, said that independent bookstores are undergoing a resurgence and experiencing consistent growth. In 2017, sales at indie bookstores were up 2.6 percent year-over-year. Barnes & Nobles’ sales, meanwhile, dropped 6.4 percent over the holidays and online sales dropped 4.5 percent.
Throughout the 1990s, big box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders came to be seen as the scourge of independents, offering assortment and price that mom-and-pops couldn’t compete with. Then came Amazon with ultra-low prices and unprecedented product variety to undercut the big boxes.
The mid-2000s saw the advent of e-readers, which had tech buffs speculating that both physical books and the bookstores that sold them were going the way of the dodo. But e-books are widely regarded to have peaked. Sales have plateaued if not declined, a trend that at least one major global publisher, Hachette Livre, has said shows no sign of turning around, as The Guardian recently reported.
In a post-big box retail environment, mom-and-pop bookstores are demonstrating big advantages that a chain like Barnes & Noble would have trouble matching.
Indie bookstores can cultivate a sense of community and, in turn, a type of loyalty that customers don’t feel for chains. And in terms of operations, indie bookstores can move more dynamically, partnering with other businesses in the local retail community for promotions, running events that cater to the specific interests of their customers and tailoring their assortments based on what their customers want.