BY MELANIE ULLE
Just as often as I bemoan the future of the planet and the stupidity of the human race, I also hear about something simple and brilliant, and feel a slight sense of encouragement that allows me to acknowledge that humanity is not just a steaming pile of dung.
I often write about small businesses and nonprofits who serve our communities and create value. I have complete conviction that independent bookstores make communities better. They add value. Our collective experience as humans is better because they exist. Today I spent time with a bookseller who owns a shop in a small, but wealthy community. The community continues to step up for him but the perpetual struggle is wearing on him.
He shared the obstacles that all independent bookstores face. None of the challenges were particularly surprising but, when you add them all together, it is an absolute wonder that any small bookshop sticks around.
Here’s the brief history…
First, the independent bookstores had to contend with Barnes and Noble, the most significant big box store in the bookselling space. Fast Company says that between 2001 and 2008, 1,000 of them closed in the United States, which was the most striking decline in decades. (Remember in the movie You’ve Got Mail when we all rooted for Meg Ryan’s little place, The Shop Around the Corner, and then somehow were still happy when she ended up with Tom Hanks at the end after he drove her out of business with his big box bookstore? I digress, but that was messed up and I think we all still owe her an apology.)
Next, the little shops had to deal with Amazon, which grew by leaps and bounds through the 2000s, 2010s and 2020s with an online book selection so expansive that not even a big ol’ broad like Barnes and Noble could compete. It was a bloodbath. If you want to see how booksellers feel about Amazon, their association website’s advocacy and briefings section is practically dedicated to wrestling them down, spitting in their eyes and pulling their hair.
Then there was the rise of ebooks and ereaders, which came in hot like the boils or the firestorms or maybe the frogs of the biblical plagues. I know what you’re thinking, can these folks catch a break? It couldn’t possibly get worse, right?
No, there was one more thing. You may have heard of it. An actual plague. COVID, which was the baddest mammajamma of them all. This was the moment when the locusts came out to play.
Suffice it to say, it has not been a cakewalk. The gentleman I spoke with today has launched a GoFundMe campaign in hopes of saving his bookstore, which is absolutely lovely by the way. I felt his anguish and utter exhaustion. I bought books, gave to his campaign and sat down to research what someone like me can do to help an entire industry.
Here’s what I learned. There is a site called Bookshop.org that is donating profits directly to bookstores. They’re giving funds from direct purchases, and they have a profit pool that’s split between their over 1,600 independent bookstore partners.
Since independent bookstores don’t have the bandwidth or frankly, the ecommerce experience to run their own online stores Amazon has unfortunately filled that void. But, working with a partner like BookShop.org allows them to make no changes to inventory, and avoid spending hours tinkering with a new site. They simply create a digital storefront on Bookshop.org and populate it with the books that represent their clientele.
Bookshop partners with a wholesaler and BAM – the local bookseller gets 30 percent of the price of any book sold through their online Bookshop.org storefront.
How does it work for the consumer? I decided to give it a try, as my teenage daughter texted me this afternoon to order a book for her English class. Step 1: Select a favorite bookstore to support. I have so many, but I went with Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, (which is not owned by or associated with the gentleman who shared the industry’s woes with me). Step 2: Select the book. Step 3: Order for delivery. I was pleased to see at the end of my transaction that $5.20 of my purchase went directly to Firehouse. That level of disclosure was reassuring.
To date, BookShop.org has raised $27,191,576.92 for local bookstores. What a tremendous benefit for the industry and for society writ large. Sorry Amazon. You’re great, but I’m going to have to support the little guys.
If you want to learn more about Bookshop.org, go to their site and support your favorite local bookseller.