On Cyber Monday, remember that if you want quirky bespoke stores to exist, you need to support them
Americans express their values with their dollars. Don’t look at what they say they value, look at what they buy.
If you value independent booksellers, please shop at ours–The Book House. Free shipping til midnight Monday.
When it comes to books, it seems nearly impossible to find a reader who says he prefers Amazon. Even with its instant delivery and rock-bottom prices. Virtually everyone says he values the bespoke experience of an in-person bookstore, and usually they mean a small quirky independent bookstore rather than Barnes and Noble.
But it’s a lie.
Precise numbers are hard to divine because at less than 10% of sales, books are a trivial source of revenue for Amazon and they don’t break it out. But Amazon’s share of book sales in America is estimated to be just under 65%. Costco and Barnes & Noble and other giant booksellers account for most of the rest. Small independent bookstores account for only about 10%.
I know a little bit about this. The company that owns this website owns The Book House, an adorable little bookstore in Millburn, New Jersey.
The store was founded in 2018 by Nadege Nicoll, a stylish French lady, who had embraced Millburn and raised a beautiful family here. The store did fine and had its fans, but nobody sells books to get rich and soon enough, she hung a “going out of business” sign.
Me and the other executives at Sea of Reeds (who are my wife and my best friend) have discussed for years whether a bookstore wouldn’t be a nice complement to what we’re already doing. This site obviously already covers books. We could feature the books discussed on the site and sell them in the store. Sister site Rock and Roll Globe sometimes writes about acoustic and solo artists. Maybe they could perform at a store if we had one. And our company produces two podcasts that cover books and authors. They’ve both been catching fire and moving up the charts; the ability to promote the books of the guests who appear makes it easier to land big-name authors. In an even more disgusting era of American finance, this phenomenon was called “synergy.” As a college dropout who loves to read—what Virginia Woolf might have called a “common reader”—I just thought a bookstore would be a super versatile platform for a bunch of things we’re trying to achieve.
Soon enough, we were looking at locations. We saw a great one in nearby Madison, but the pandemic, especially in a nanny state like New Jersey, just didn’t look to be loosening its death grip. The sole competitive advantage that bookstores have – obviously they cannot compete on convenience or price, since Amazon uses books as a loss leader (And I hope the Commerce Department is taking a good look at those business practices) — is a curated series of events with authors and other live interactions.
We made an offer and we saved the town’s bookstore. The percentage of customers who come in and issue some sort of remark along the lines of “We are so glad you saved this place” is nearing 100.
We spent $25,000 to restock the shelves, took a barista class at counterculture, remodeled a couple areas so they’d be hang out and read zones. And our next innovation—Pelican Punch—it’s going to blow people’s minds when it launches early next year.
Additionally, we are transforming the downstairs into a legit performance space. We have a license to serve coffee, but not a kitchen license, so there’s some bureaucracy to wrestle. But the pandemic shut both the Maplewood and the Millburn movie theaters. A community with so many creative people needs places to screen and gather. Again, our company produces a small number of short films, but we want to host other filmmakers, as well as authors, comedians, poets and artists.
Ultimately, you cannot depend on a community’s goodwill for your business to survive. You have to provide a valuable service at a price that makes sense. There’s no company in the world that can compete with Amazon on price and convenience. So if that’s all that matters to you, you should shop there.
But if you’re one of those nice people who tell shop owners how glad you are that they exist, try to find ways to put your holiday dollars where your mouth is. I will meet you halfway. Up top, I mentioned bookshop.org, which allows indie bookstores like ours to sell a huge selection of books at pretty good prices. If you order today, you get free shipping, some sort of nod to that most cloying and obnoxious neo-holiday Cyber Monday.
For audiobooks, consider downloading Libro.fm. Amazon-owned audio book publisher Audible —a company that I love and use and which was founded by a friend of mine and has its headquarters a bike ride from our store—has a 90% market share. That’s bad for authors, readers and America. It’s not right.
Or maybe you’d like to support a different indie bookstore, one near you rather than The Book House. Good! Go to bookshop.org, enter your ZIP Code and it’ll tell you which stores near you will benefit if you simply list them as your local bookstore.
Or how about this. Get off your ass, and actually go to an independent bookstore.
That’s what I did this weekend.
I visited Old Florida Book Shop, and I’m a better man for the for having done so. This is the quintessential used bookstore and curiosity shop. Books stacked to the high ceiling. And only when you climb the ladders do you realize that each shelf is three books deep. Finding any particular book isn’t really possible. The goal is: If you love books, pick a topic and spend a day discovering what the great minds of history have had to say on it. And if you think there’s not an adorable cat, I haven’t done a very good job describing the scene.
Ultimately, that’s the point. Amazon is fast. Cheap. Convenient. But do they have a cat playing at your feet as the guy who runs the place writes the price of everything in pencil on the first page? If that matters to you, find a place like Old Florida Book Shop.