The Unsettled and Unsettling Future of Independent Bookstores

By Carrie Hatano
Boston University News Service

BOSTON – It’s a crisp Friday afternoon in April, and the empty lot next to the Brattle Book Shop is bustling. Families, tourists, and students drift from shelf to shelf, thumbing through classics and filling their arms with mounds of used books.

Although it’s spring and the sun is out, bad weather doesn’t keep customers away. Owner Kenneth Gloss says, “People will browse out there at five below zero.”

The lot is an outdoor extension of the Brattle Book Shop—aimed to attract passersby and rid the store of lower-priced used books ($1, $3, and $5 to be exact). Books line the three brick walls and rollaway carts all year long. Even in the rain.

Bookstores like the Brattle Book Shop that sell antiquarian books may soon be antiquated themselves. A recent study by the Pew Research Center revealed that 21 percent of American adults say they’ve read an e-book in the past year—a number that spiked 4 percent in a three-month period alone.

The good news for the publishing industry: 42 percent of e-book readers say they’re reading more, now that reading is available digitally. The bad news for independent bookstores: they’ll have to work even harder to draw customers away from the e-world.

The Brattle Book Shop is old, much like the books it carries. Founded in 1825, it has been in the hands of the Gloss family since 1949. It’s tough work for Gloss, who goes into the store at 5:30 a.m. every weekday to prepare for buying trips to people’s homes, as well as the stream of customers who always seem to flood the store.

At 61, Gloss has gray hair streaked with white, his face is lined with the occasional wrinkle, and he has a tendency to wear baggy sweaters. Yet, Gloss is still in peak physical condition.

“One of the things that people don’t realize about this business is it’s incredibly physical,” he says. “If you get a thousand books in a fifth-floor walk up to an apartment and it’s 95 degrees out, you’ve gotta carry out a thousand books.”

The books themselves come from “banks, lawyers, auctioneers, other book dealers, antique dealers, and individuals,” says Gloss. “There’s every other reason you can imagine, but the majority come from people either moving or dying.

The store is home to 100,000-120,000 books that span three stories and spill out the side door into the lot. They lean against the walls, and are stacked in enormous, disorderly piles in every room. Customers are always rummaging through the stacks.

“There’s a whole crew of regulars who come in almost every day, some two or three times a week, and others whenever they’re in Boston,” Gloss explains. “I have one customer who even calls in sick.”

With its relentless crowd of customers and local fame, the Brattle Book Shop is an outlier. Thanks to a well-established good reputation and substantial PR efforts, the store stays in business.

Still, Gloss says, “A lot of used book stores are going out of business. A lot of stores might seems busy, but if you lose 10 or 20 percent of your business to the Internet, that can be the margin to put it under.”

Jeremy Greenfield, the editorial director of Digital Book World (DBW), doesn’t think that mass media, like bookstores, are capable of disappearing in the snap of a finger.

“I always laugh when people talk about one media subsuming the other,” Greenfield said in a telephone interview. “Radio was supposed to die when television came around. When cable television came, broadcast was supposed to die. All of that is not true.”

DBW is a branch of Financial Markets World focused on keeping consumer publishers up to date with news about digital books. Greenfield, who got involved with the company to cover the changes in the publishing industry, said it’s important to note that not everyone has a kindle, iPad, or smartphone.

“People like going into bookstores and browsing. People like libraries—they’re always scrounging around,” said Greenfield. “I don’t think necessarily any one thing that’s happened means the death of bookstores, but people are concerned about it.”

Another obstacle for independent bookstores is Google’s announcement that it will discontinue its affiliate program by January. The program allowed independent bookstores to sell e-books online—with the added benefit of Google’s name.

Greenfield said this will likely affect indie bookstores. “That program was their lifeline into a new, valuable revenue stream,” he explained.

Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore in Coolidge Corner, was involved with Google’s program through the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a trade association for independent booksellers.

Dana Brigham, the store’s manager and co-owner, says that the ABA is working on an alternative solution.

“Since we sell relatively few e-books so far, it won’t be a major blow,” she says. “But we do need a way to be able to sell e-books on some level.”

On top of maintaining a huge number of titles and excellent customer service, Brigham says they’ve added a used-book section, a large gift and games area, a website for e-commerce, an email newsletter, and a great author events program.

The store has also merged with the Globe Corner Travel bookstore, which was located in Harvard Square before it closed last summer, to open a “Globe Corner Travel Annex” in its Brookline shop.

Brigham, who has managed the store for 30 years, still thinks bookstores like hers have an edge over e-books. She says that some people even come into the store and ask for a recommendation, only to leave to buy the book online.

“Online recs are all algorithmic, and aren’t given by real people who’ve read and know books,” Brigham says. “I understand that the pricing of e-books is appealing. I just think book lovers will lose out if e-books become the only option.”

Despite all of the store’s efforts, on a recent afternoon the used-book basement section had only one browser. Still, Brigham remains optimistic.

“I believe there will always be a market for ‘real’ books,” she says. “I think of the e-book experience as sterile and cold. The touch and smell and visual stimulation provided by a real book are much better, in my opinion.”

Gloss also sees disadvantages to everything going electronic.

“A lot of what is good about a bookstore is the serendipity,” he says. “In other words, a lot of times if you know exactly what you’re looking for, Amazon is quick, easy, simple. But a lot of times it’s the book next to it on the shelf that you didn’t even know existed.”

Barnes & Noble, a company that manages both bookstores and e-readers, is in the unique position of having to play both sides of the field.

Stephen Turco, who has been the general manager of Barnes & Noble at Boston University for seven years, says that they’re mostly under pressure from online competition. Turco’s bookstore suffers from the same parasite that Brookline Booksmith does—customers who come in for recommendations but opt to buy books online.

“What you’re telling the store is: ‘I love your service, but I’m not going to pay for it,’” says Turco. “The reality is that every consumer should spend money where they want people to stay in business. Bookstores will cease to exist when people stop valuing books for the experience.”

Bookstores like the Brattle Book Shop and Brookline Booksmith face uncertainty. Publishers and bookstores alike are in turmoil about the way forward. If there’s one thing that is known, it’s that the industry is changing.

For many, bookstores and libraries will always be a source of comfort and joy. For others, the practicality of e-books may triumph. For Ken Gloss, whose life revolves around books, there is still hope.

“One good thing about that is that people are reading. And however they’re doing that is a good thing,” he says. “It’s changed, and nothing’s going to change it back. You just adjust to the change.”

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