Why Shop at a Local Indie Instead of Online?

Late last week, something on Twitter caught my attention.  Bookavore, a fellow bookseller and manager at WORD in Brooklyn, was asked the following by a customer.


Now, this is becoming a more and more common query at indie stores.  There is no question that one of the biggest factors in the falling sales at independent (and big box) brick and mortar bookstores is an elephant in the room called amazon.com.  Truth be told, it’s easy to see the bullet points for using a site like Amazon.  Their listings for new, used and out-of-print books are staggering, and the company’s structure means that a lot of these books can be sold at a discount.  Amazon has also been revolutionary in developing an online sales model, and their affiliate program tempts many, many websites to link to them – and gain a commission in return.

So the question is a valid one: why shop at a local store instead of a chain or online, especially in a time when the economy is so bad?  Along with a bunch of responses from other Twitter users, I chimed in with a few of my own thoughts.

The money stays in the local economy. When you spend $100 at a local business, about $68 stays in the community.  If you go ahead and spend that money at a chain, only $43 stays local.  Online?  Fuggedaboutit.

You’re supporting uniqueness, in products and stores. When you visit a chain, you’re visiting a store that looks, feels, and has the same stock as hundreds of others.  When you visit a local independent store, you’re going into a different experience almost every time.  Indies often build their stock with customer special orders and staff picks, which makes the selection unique.

Shopping locally is more environmentally friendly. Our store, like many other indies, takes care to stock environmentally responsible products that we stand behind.  We also carry a lot of books and crafts from local artisans and authors.  On top of this, buying from a local shop saves from the environmental impact of packaging and shipping books.

Immediacy  – you get to take the book home and read it, and don’t have to wait for it to arrive.  Also, no shipping and handling charge. This is a big one when it comes to a physical good like a book.  If you buy a book online, you have to wait for it to arrive before you can begin reading it.  When you buy from a local shop, you can start reading immediately.  Also, buying a book in the store means you don’t have to pay shipping and handling – a cost that often negates the discounted prices online.

Booksellers offer personal service and expertise. A good independent bookstore can offer personal recommendations and specialized expertise to the customer on a one-on-one basis.  A seasoned indie staff has intimate knowledge of the books in the store, and also has a strong read on local books, book club selections and popular titles.  Plus, we are great at answering those “I can’t remember the title or author or plot, but…” queries.

We support the community and local schools and causes. Studies have shown that local businesses donate to local charities and causes at more than double the rate of chains and “big box” stores.  Our store, like many others, works closely with local schools and colleges to make sure we carry affordable and curriculum-related books.

Bookstores can hold intimate signings and events. One only needs to look at a shop like River Run Bookstore in Portsmouth to see the kind of events an independent bookstore can bring to a community.  Most nights, the store hosts or sponsors an event in Portsmouth.  These events aren’t a video presentation or autograph-mill for hundreds of people, but are intimate events where booklovers can meet and interact with authors.  Independent stores around the country make these kinds of events possible.

While these are a few reasons I initially came up with for shopping at independent bookstores, I’m sure there are dozens of others that I haven’t thought of.  Conversely, I’m sure there are reasons (like price or convenience) that folks shop online and at chain stores.  I encourage you to voice your support for either in the comments.

7 responses to “Why Shop at a Local Indie Instead of Online?

  1. I wish indies would focus more on the “value proposition.” First an foremost, it’s expertise. It’s not merely good indies that know more about books, it’s virtually all of them. It’s a simple process. Smart, bookish people want to work at indies. They want to be around people who love books and to help people find good ones. (They sure aren’t in it for the money.) The chain stores don’t care and can’t hire the same quality of employee. Independent bookstores are much like libraries—staffed by qualified people who care about finding you the right book. That’s the big draw in my mind, and so I find it a little irritating that the transition from Booksense to IndieBound dropped most discussion of this aspect, and focused on the lifestyle-brand and social policy issues instead.

    The environmental argument is, IMHO, completely bogus, and indicative of the underlying argument of much of the buy-indie movement—a lifestyle brand to make you feel good about yourself. If there’s an environmental impact, I suspect it’s in favor of Amazon and the rest. And anytime someone brings up the environment with respect to bookselling, it needs to be remembered that (1) books are made of dead trees, in large numbers; they are not environmentally friendly; (2) books are what makes caring about *any* of this stuff even possible. There are a million unimportant things that waste resources. Books are an important one.

  2. And speaking of local, if you link to LibraryThing, not Goodreads, your money will stay in your own community, Portland, ME! 😉

  3. I agree, Tim, with your point that indies should focus more on the “expert” model of advertising. My main two points for shopping indie for any product or service, not just books, are: buying local and indie builds a stronger community, and it is the best way to get quality advice, product, and so on.

    But here’s my concern, and I wonder if you have any thoughts on it. The problem with setting yourself up for high expectations is that when they’re not met, you’re trashed. In other words, if I advertise my store as being a place for expertise on books, and then the 3% of the time when I’m not totally on (which, as I mostly work 9-10 hour days, definitely happens), someone can pshaw and say, “some expertise!” Or if someone asks about DeLillo–look, I don’t like his writing. I’m not an expert, and I can’t give advice on him, or Russian literature for that matter. So I would be nervous to tell people that’s the main reason to shop with me.

    Second, when indies advertise themselves as a whole, as with BookSense/IndieBound, we’re in a bit of a quandary because we’re advertising something we have almost no control over. I love almost every bookseller and indie bookstore I’ve ever been in, and yet, I don’t agree with everything they do. Which is the point of us all having our own stores, obviously, but it also is a problem in the following way:

    I have had, both IRL and online, more than one person explain to me that the reason they don’t shop indie is because of a bad experience they had ONCE, or a bad experience they had at ONE store. I think people expect a certain amount of BS from chain stores and the Internet, so they take it and move on, but they don’t expect it from indies (because we’ve told them, via advertising, they shouldn’t) and then if one person in one store fubars that, often somebody I’ve never met and never will, then the whole thing is sunk for all of us.

    Maybe I sound like a crazy person who worries too much! I swear I wouldn’t care about this so much if it hadn’t been used as reasoning by so many people. But it has, and that’s why I’d hesitate to push a big “expert” ad campaign.

  4. As a consumer, I get my books from several sources: firstly my library’s used bookstore, second the local indie stores (we have several excellent ones in Reno.), and lastly online.

    I love our indie stores. If they do not know or have something, they either find someone who does or offers me a resource where I can get it.

    To me, their value lies in being book lovers just like me. They are helpful and honest in their dealings with others and myself. The atmosphere and knowing I am supporting my community plays a role, but not as much as knowing that whenever I go to one of these stores I will be welcomed, helped, and appreciated more as a fellow bibliophile than a consumer.

    I’m lucky. I have not had a negative experience with any of our stores. And even if I did, I would not immediately refrain from going there again. It would depend on the circumstance. I am not one to judge the whole for a single incident. It would take several, or the one I did experience would have to be absolutely horrible.

    This is a great discussion and I do like seeing the issue from another point of view. Thank you for the posting.

  5. Tim; I agree that, if not expertise, at least passion and enjoyment of our job is a great selling point for booksellers. You’re right – money isn’t why we do the job. It is a genuine, infectious love of books and reading. While it’s still too early (IMO) to tell if the change from Booksense to Indiebound has been a success, I agree that a greater focus on the practical – WE LOVE BOOKS – might motivate people. I think the success of campaigns like “Eat. Sleep. Read.” and the Indie Next List speak to this. As for the environmental impact, I agree that it probably holds less water for a bookstore than something like a grocer, where the majority of their products are grown locally. And books themselves do obviously have a huge impact on the environment. However, I think it is hard to make the argument that a chain or online retailer is any better for the environment. Specifically speaking for my store, we do take care to carry as many locally produced products (books and gifts) as possible, and take care to monitor our impact on the environment. Trust me, now that I’ve realized LibraryThing is local I have some thinking to do ;).

    ; I totally see where you’re coming from. Personally, going into a store which sells itself as “experts” and not having it live up to that advertisement has stopped me from going back. I think maybe a better tack would be to sell our stores as PASSIONATE about books. I have only had a handful of customers expect me to know every book we carry front and back, and usually an honest answer about not having read everything will be enough for a customer. The worst thing to do, I’ve found, is to give an uninformed answer trying to sound like an expert. I think this is a place where a strong staff really helps – hopefully the books read by everyone at a store are diverse enough to answer everyone’s questions. You definitely don’t sound like a crazy person who worries too much. Service is really one of the BEST ways we can compete with other stores, so every interaction with every customer is crucial – I’m off more than 3% of the time, and I’ve literally ran down the street to catch customers when I remember a book after they leave. I think, maybe I’m the crazy one.

    ; Thanks for checking out the site and commenting! I’m glad to see indies are near the top of your book buying haunts. Bibliophiles are one of the reasons working at a bookstore is so fun and so challenging – it is great to try and match a person with the book they are looking for.

  6. Bookavore: buying local and indie builds a stronger community

    This gets into economics, and on that at least I’m guessing I’m to the right of most booksellers, but fundamentally the idea of keeping money “in” a community is not one I buy. It’s not universalizable. On the level of PR, it comes off as scolding and accusatory. I think I’m in the minority here, at least as regards indie-buyers.

    Bookavore: So I would be nervous to tell people that’s the main reason to shop with me.

    I think there’s something to that. I wouldn’t make it the main reason, but I don’t like to see it dropped. I did a long blog post on this–comparing and contrasting the BookSense and IndieBound marketing materials. It was a fascinating exercise in source-criticism–with genetic relationships between web pages, etc. Over and over IndieBound cranked up the socio-political volume, the fist-pumping and in-group politics, and removed references to expertise, experience and so forth. Eventually I junked the post because I have enough enemies. I don’t need to always attack people who are my friends, even if I think they’re going the wrong way.

    On expertise, I think a bookseller armed with coworkers and a computer—LibraryThing tag search bookmarked, so you can find out what the cool paranomral steampunk books are in a flash—can augment what they themselves know. Even if independent bookstores are necessarily more knowledgeable, there’s still a maturity and passion gap. It’s not just that the bookseller can’t spell Nabokov and isn’t aware that’s a last name, it’s that he or she thinks his job ends when he finds something on a computer screen. I like all bookstore, and all bookstore people. But the big guys hire a lot of people who literary burger flippers.

    If we’re praising indie booksellers for their smarts, we should mention that it sometimes backfires–the bookstore equivalent of the record shop in High Fidelity where the Jack Black character belittles a customer for wanting Lionel Ritchie. I don’t think this common, but it can be damaging. Big stores are quintessentially faceless. An indie has a face—probably the same face every day. Both positive and negative feelings stick.

    On a lower level, the limited selection of most indies can be alienating to people who don’t read what indies think is important. A lot of indies start by excluding huge swaths of the book worlds that are larger and more vigorus than literary ficiton–romance novels, manga and Christian apologetics, for example.

    In my own life, I find it hard to buy a lot of books at my locals (Portland, ME) because they don’t stock much non-fiction, particularly history–just what hits the bestsellers, whereas my interests are more academic–and virtually ignore technology. (For tech books, I’m sorry, but Border and B&N are a *paradise*. I also buy a lot of Greek and Latin, and while the biggies aren’t great there, they usually have a decent shelf of Loebs to browse for oddities I don’t have.)

    I don’t see any way to get around the selection problem–few indies can compete on breadth of selection, so they make it up in quality of selection, alienaing some. But I’d appreciate a nod in my direction from time to time.

    Josh: Trust me, now that I’ve realized LibraryThing is local I have some thinking to do ;).

    You need to consider the bits. LibraryThing’s bits are coming from Congress Street. Goodreads has to push them all the way from California. Electrons don’t move at the speed of light by themselves, you know. It takes coal in large amounts to start them moving and then more coal to slow them down at the other end.

    I think maybe a better tack would be to sell our stores as PASSIONATE about books.

    Yes. I’d buy that distinction.

    But even if the indie bookseller doesn’t know a damn thing about X, they at least know something about the books on display–when you say, “Hey, is this good” they’ll have an answer. The tables at B&N and B are picked elsewhere, and indeed bought.

  7. Pingback: how to buy a greener book — Effectivism

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