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The Plight of the Indie Bookstore in the Post-Lockdown Internet Age

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The Plight of the Indie Bookstore in the Post-Lockdown Internet Age

The belief that the book industry is dying and bookstores are languishing is now widespread and easily accepted by many. For years now, this has been a cliché; sometimes, we lament that reading is on the decline. Blame is laid on technology, screens, easily available alternative entertainment, declining attention spans, and busy work lives. We also associate this decline in readership, which we’ve taken for granted, with dystopian large-scale book-burning scenarios as depicted in Fahrenheit 451.

However, the fact of the matter lies far from this version of things. In fact, publishing and book sales are doing well, and 2020, an otherwise disastrous year, appears to have shaped up to be one of the best years in publishing and book sales since the beginning of the 21st century. Though it is true that several independent bookstores have struggled to stay afloat, their problems didn’t just begin with the lockdowns imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A woman browsing in a bookstore

A woman browsing in a bookstore

Amazon, the Kindle, and the Rise of eBooks

Amazon began selling books in 1995. While it was almost immediately pegged as a threat to the book-selling industry, it took some time for the threat to materialize. Nearly ten years after its first sale, Amazon was still a marginal player in the book business. However, indie bookstores were already beginning to struggle in the face of much larger chain stores that took up much larger portions of the market share (the conflict between indie and chain bookstores even made it to the screen in the 1998 hit romcom “You’ve Got Mail”).

The release of the Kindle (2007) and the Kindle 2 (2009), and the ensuing popularity of digital books (ebooks and audiobooks) changed that trend significantly. Amazon was able to offer lower prices and conveniences that appeared to have the traditional book industry beat.

A few years later, though, physical books were back; in fact, they were outstripping ebook sales. So much so that Amazon even opened its own chain of brick-and-mortar bookstores in 2015, with the first one located in Seattle. However, the rise in physical book sales did not usher in the good for most independent bookstores, which continued to struggle, only this time with the larger chain stores on their side. The age of the Internet had well and truly arrived, and it was Amazon, the largest online retailer, dubbed “The Everything Store,” that was reaping the rewards.

Social Media for Indie Bookstores

Indie bookstores did manage to keep afloat during the pandemic, and they had help from a surprising source–social media, in particular Instagram.

Bookstores, especially the small, cozy, local mom-and-pop variety, have always been associated with community. For booklovers, they’re not just places to explore and buy books from, but also spots to meet and interact with others who share their love of the written word.

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As with everything else in the digital age, this community, too, has found a space online. There are blogs and forums for bibliophiles to log in to and discuss their passion. Instagram has provided such a platform, with the hashtag “bookstagram” being associated with several millions of posts. The aesthetics of physical books are hard to beat, and they provide a source of never-ending creativity and content for image-driven social media. Bookstagrammers, in general, are a group who are vocal about supporting indie bookstores, conducting meet-and-greets at these stores, and prompting their followers to visit and buy from them.

Indie bookstores have been able to use this platform to their advantage very effectively. For instance, The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles has a whimsical and dreamy design with arches and a whole tunnel made of books. This has attracted many people to the store, including influential “bookstagrammers” from all over the world.

Indie bookstores have also been able to utilize social media to recreate that sense of community. They often organize and host events that are not only well-attended but also well-documented and reported about on social media. They are also able to bring authors into the loop, providing both real-world as well as virtual spaces for them to interact with their readers.

During the Covid-19 Lockdowns

As with most other businesses, the Covid-19 lockdowns have been bad news for indie bookstores. In fact, they have put an already vulnerable industry in a precarious position. The whole situation has been ironic, and arguably tragic as well. While brick-and-mortar bookstores shut down or struggled, the demand for books and book sales have seen a massive surge as people are stuck at home with unexpected free time on their hands.

However, there have been significant attempts to counter this new hardship. Just before the pandemic broke out, a new online retailer, Bookshop, set up shop to counter Amazon. While it had been cautiously optimistic in the beginning, the lockdown caused its business to boom. Soon Bookshop had pioneered a popular method to buy books.

Simultaneously, an app called “Save Your Bookstore” was designed to allow patrons to support their local indie bookstores from home. It allows users to “browse” bookstores and procure and send gift cards, while also allowing the sellers to organize pick-up and delivery.

The stiff competition Amazon continues to pose has also prompted an online campaign from the American Booksellers Association called #BoxedOut. As Amazon rolled out its Prime Day, window displays in bookstores around the country were taken over by distinctive posters with fake cardboard backgrounds, and slogans such as “Bookstores vs. Billionaires” and “Don’t let indie bookstores become a work of fiction.”

Meanwhile, several people have argued that bookstores should be regarded as “essential services.” This would allow bookstores to remain open during public health crises and other emergencies. These demands are especially visible in Canada and France (the historic Shakespeare & Co. bookstore had to send out an appeal when sales plunged by 80% during the pandemic). In a few US towns and cities, some bookstores have been granted the “essential services” status in light of the growing popularity of homeschooling and the need for educational materials. However, this was not accepted across the board, and most indie bookstores remained closed during the lockdowns.

Though the book business is racked by uncertainty, it has proved time and again to be surprisingly resilient, pulling through some incredibly rough times. Indie bookstores have not been afraid to innovate or adopt new technologies; they are, in fact, able to maintain their unique identities despite doing so. They also have a strong base of patrons and supporters who are willing to reach out in trying times.

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