Some book lovers will pay extra to avoid Amazon, which is opening two new NYC stores
Updated: April 4, 2017
Print is dead? Long live print!
Amazon may have conquered the book-selling market, but word nerds are finding their way back to bookstores. The internet superstore is sinking its claws into America’s literary capital with its first two brick-and-mortar Big Apple bookstores this year. The first was announced last year, while Amazon confirmed to Moneyish that a second set of New York doors, close to the Empire State Building, is also on its way.
Amazon isn’t alone: Bookworms will tell you that paper books and the community around them are alive and kicking.
In the latest sign of the power of print, a spate of indie bookstores will enter the New York City area in the coming months, even as larger chains have exited. Labor Department data show that the number of bookstores nationwide declined by 12% from 2012 to last year, but the American Booksellers Association, an independent bookstores trade group, has seen membership grow by almost 13% in the five years leading up to 2016.
Indies are thriving because of Amazon, not in spite of the internet behemoth. This is a story of two different types of bookstores: one with vast inventory, low prices and algorithm-driven recommendations, and another that lures customers seeking tightly curated collections and a community of bookworms. “I’ve lived my whole life a few blocks from where I want to open,” says Noëlle Santos of the Lit Bar, an upcoming space in the Bronx, who relies on “casual conversation” and a women’s book club she founded for inventory suggestions.
“As the volume of books published increases, the importance of a bookseller that can recommend titles has never been greater,” says Oren Teicher, chief executive of the ABA.
Independent bookselling has never been particularly lucrative. Many bookstores stock their inventory at a 30% to 45% wholesale discount, but after expenses, that translates into a profit margin of 2% to 3% even for the cost-savvy, says Donna Garban, co-owner of Hoboken’s Little City Books. She also had help from book lovers along the way: A supportive landlord who desperately wanted to house a bookstore in her building, a bookseller who helped install bookcases at the shop and pro bono advice from more established businesses in town.
Many independent stores are finding homes in current literary deserts. Santos launched a crowdfunding effort for The Lit Bar, which will be the only general purpose bookstore in the Bronx after Barnes and Noble shut there last year. A Kickstarter campaign raised $72,000 for the Queens Bookshop Initiative, likely to debut in a Kew Gardens location this spring for the borough’s second non-specialty bookstore. Greenlight Books opened a second set of doors in Brooklyn last November, and Little City Books is sui generis in Hoboken.
A younger generation of booksellers is also coming to the fore and buying out older proprietors. Left Bank Books, a used bookshop in Manhattan, will reopen later this year, and Tattered Cover in Denver has found new ownership. “Their energy and enthusiasm has been contagious for everyone else,” says Teicher.
Amazon’s physical stores provide a tech-forward but uniform retail experience, while brick-and-mortar indies offer quirkier services. The Lit Bar will sell wine in its literary-themed bar, which offers higher profit margins than books. Santos says she’ll make a fairly standard 40% profit margin on selling books, but will be marking up wine by around 200%; each glass will be priced at between $6 and $12. Meanwhile, The Queens store will sell “lovely crafted stationery and items like literature-themed tote bags and coffee mugs,” says Holly Nikodem, a co-founder.
The mutual bibliophilia of booksellers also transcends typical economic pressures, with co-operating instead of competing “This is the only business where your competitors want you to succeed,” says Garban, a former Goldman Sachs trader. For instance, when the Queens Bookshop Initiative announced its launch plans, the owner of the Astoria Bookshop, the sole non-specialty bookstore in Queens, promoted the news on Twitter.
— Astoria Bookshop (@astoriabookshop) June 20, 2016
“There are enough people who want independent bookstores to exist,” says Garban. “There’s a heart and soul in bookselling that doesn’t need disrupting.”
This story was updated on April 4, 2017 to reflect Amazon’s plan for a second New York City location.
A version of this story was originally published on MarketWatch.
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