“You cannot invent an algorithm that is as good at recommending books as a good bookseller.” – John Green
Recently, five hundred independent booksellers gathered at a gorgeous, magisterial inn that F. Scott Fitzgerald used to stay at in Asheville, North Carolina. They were there on an important mission: the tenth annual Winter Institute, a conference organized by the American Booksellers Association, where booksellers, publishers, and some of the best contemporary authors mingle, attend educational sessions, and talk about books.
This conference is where buzz built for some of the biggest books of the last decade. From Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and especially small press favorites like The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Winter Institute is a place to discover, get excited about, and spread the word about the best books of the year.
I’ve experienced this firsthand at previous Winter Institutes. I spent seven years running events at indie bookstores, and I worked as a frontline bookseller while I was an undergraduate. Attending the conference as a freelance writer, one thing immediately became clear as I chatted with former colleagues and some of the country’s best-loved authors: Bookstores are here to stay.
We see a lot of doom and gloom in the media about Amazon putting brick and mortar stores out of business, and about e-books making physical books obsolete. But according to the ABA, the number of indie bookstores have grown by almost 27% since 2009, totaling 440 new bookstore locations. People are paying attention to these statistics. A recent article in the New York Times shows that the U.S. is doing much better than the U.K. when it comes to indie bookstores.
“The existence of a bookstore in a community creates a community,” says Azar Nafisi, author of The Republic of Imagination. “Amazon creates a warehouse.” Community is more important than ever. Bookstores aren’t just places to spend money; they are a gathering place where people can speak their mind. “Bookstores are the most democratic spaces in the world,” Nafisi argues.
Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble, has a background in bookselling. “I think especially in the current economy, independent bookstores often define the community that they are in,” she writes.
It’s true. This is certainly the case with one of the best bookstores in the country: Third Place Books in Seattle. The store is doing so well that it is opening a third location at the end of this year. One of the reasons this store succeeds is because it serves the need of its customers, and the owners are innovative. Third Place got special attention from J.K. Rowling last year when Robert Sindelar, managing partner and a longtime bookseller, saw an opportunity in the Amazon/Hachette dispute. If Hachette wasn’t going to allow their customers to pre-order the new Rowling novel (written under her pen name of Robert Galbraith) then Sindelar would make it even easier for local readers to get their hands on the novel. He took pre-orders and hand-delivered copies in the greater Seattle area. Rowling found out and helped spread the word via Twitter.
The poet and memoirist Elizabeth Alexander (author of the forthcoming The Light of the World) believes that it’s not just good customer service that bookstores can provide: They also are a space for reflection. Browsing in a bookstore is critical for self-growth. You’ll inevitably stumble across a book that you didn’t even know you were looking for. “That’s how you learn, that’s how you live, that’s how you feed your soul, that’s how you feed your brain.”
I saw this countless times in my years behind the counter and in front of shelves. Customers would take risks. They would read books they wouldn’t normally be interested in specifically because they trusted the taste of the dedicated readers who wrote the staff picks or pressed the books into their hands — a fine art we call hand-selling.
“I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for independent bookstores,” best-selling author John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) says. “The indie bookstore is what makes American publishing interesting and big and broad and diverse, and I worry that without bookstores, we wouldn’t have that diversity.”
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