Independent bookstores see glimmers of hope

By Hillel Italie
Associated Press / May 23, 2010

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NEW YORK — On the eve of BookExpo America, the publishing industry’s annual convention, independent booksellers are enjoying a pleasant surprise: Membership is up.

“Despite fears of a significant number of store closings as a result of the worst economy since the Depression, the good news is that much of the ABA membership is holding its own,’’ says Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent stores.

The rise is tiny, from 1,401 a year ago to 1,410, but a deluge in comparison to the past two decades, when membership dropped from more than 3,000 to last year’s low.

Independent stores have been on the wrong end of some of the biggest trends: the spread of superstore chains; the emergence of and other online retailers; the rise of the e-book, a tiny market three years ago, but now, for some major publishers, approaching 8 percent of total sales.

Teicher credits last year’s turnaround mostly to the smarts of the independent community and a willingness to experiment, such as the literary day camp at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, or the clothing store in the Northshire Bookstore in Vermont. ABA president Michael Tucker, co-owner of Books Inc. in San Francisco, says the economy may have helped some stores, making it less costly to find retail space in downtown locations.

“People aren’t willing anymore to travel great distances just to buy a book, so you can’t really afford to be off the beaten path,’’ Tucker says. “You have to be close to the Laundromat, or the movie theater or the hardware store. Our members appreciate that you have to be part of a mix of stores.’’

Booksellers have also learned to economize, and BookExpo, which begins Tuesday, is one opportunity. Show manager Steven Rosato says that until recently a given store might send five to six employees. This year, two to three is more common. Librarians, enduring budget cuts nationwide, are following a similar pattern.

Organizers Reed Exhibitions have moved the show from the weekend to midweek and reduced the number of days from four to three.

Instead of rotating among cities around the country, the convention has settled indefinitely in New York, home to virtually all the major publishers, who have openly questioned whether BookExpo is worth the expense when so much business can be completed online.

“I have mixed feelings, because it does add some excitement when you’re moving around to different cities. But if you look at it, as a cost basis, New York is preferable,’’ says Jamie Raab, executive vice president and publisher of Grand Central Publishing.