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New York’s ‘The Strand’ calls for help: Are indie bookstores in crisis worldwide?

Even after reopening post lockdown, they have been experiencing low footfalls owing to social distancing norms, and tough competition from e-commerce giants.

Written by Surbhi Gupta , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: October 30, 2020 10:38:40 am
The Strand, with a catalogue of 2.5 million new, used and rare books, is the last of the 48 bookstores that once made the famous Book Row, spread across six blocks on the Fourth Avenue. (Source: Facebook/Strand Book Store)

New York City’s most famous bookstore, The Strand, popular for its “18 Miles of Books”, could become a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the business is becoming unsustainable, said its owner Nancy Bass Wyden in a memo on social media. The plea echoes the challenge hundreds of independent and family-run book stores have been facing since March across the world. Even after reopening post lockdown, they have been experiencing low footfalls owing to social distancing norms, and tough competition from e-commerce giants.

What is the significance of The Strand?

The Strand, with a catalogue of 2.5 million new, used and rare books, is the last of the 48 bookstores that once made the famous Book Row, spread across six blocks on the Fourth Avenue. The 93-year-old store, established by Benjamin Bass, a Lithuanian emigrant, in 1927, has survived the Great Depression, World War II, the emergence of Big Box stores, and disruption by e-commerce behemoths. In 2016, The New York Times called it “the undisputed king of the city’s independent bookstores”.

What did its owner say in the memo?

Bass Wyden, the third-generation owner, said that in the last eight months, the store’s revenue had dropped nearly 70 per cent compared to last year, and it may not be able to survive due to the “huge decline in foot traffic, a near-complete loss of tourism and zero in-store events”.

“While the PPP loan we were given and our cash reserves allowed us to weather the past eight months of losses, we are now at a turning point where our business is unsustainable,” she said.

What response did it receive from customers?

After the memo was shared widely online, #savethestrand was trending on Twitter, urging people to support the business by buying books. Many lined up outside the store over the weekend, and it also witnessed a single-day record of 10,000 online orders on Saturday, so much so that their website crashed. In the 48 hours since the call for help, The Strand had processed 25,000 online orders, which would have been around 600 on a normal two-day period. One of the customers had made an online order of 197 books.

Why are indie bookstores struggling to keep afloat?

Indie bookstores serve the role of literary salons for local communities. They are a repository of old and rare books. Customers turn to them for personalised suggestions and rare finds, and they have historically supported new authors and independent presses. For that, they depend on local and loyal customers. But as the stores were closed due to the lockdown, many recorded zero sales. They anyway operate on really slim margins and fear a shift in consumer behaviour towards online shopping.

The larger indie stores have higher expenses due to larger floor space area and sizeable staffing, and need higher sales to keep going. So they rely on book readings and author signings as an added revenue stream. The Strand usually hosts about 400 events a year. But none of these could take place in the last few months.

In the 48 hours since the call for help, The Strand had processed 25,000 online orders, which would have been around 600 on a normal two-day period. (Source: Facebook/Strand Book Store)

The American Booksellers Association said that since the pandemic, 35 indie bookstores affiliated with it shut shop and it fears an additional 20 per cent are under the threat of closure. As compared to 2019, when 104 new book shops opened during the year, only 30 have opened in 2020, it said.

The dominance of Amazon

Since 1995, when Amazon opened its online bookstore, its influence over the books industry has only increased. It publishes books through Amazon Publishing, serves as a digital library through Prime Reading, its e-reader, Kindle, dominates the e-books market, and it also owns Goodreads, a popular books-based social networking platform.

It accounts for more than half of all book sales, and three quarters of all books or e-books bought online, according to Codex, a book audience research firm. Over the last five years, Amazon’s market share of all books has jumped 16 per cent. Publishing houses also spend much of their marketing budgets on the platform, where a book’s placement is known to make or break a new release.

In a direct attack against Amazon, earlier this month, ABA launched an advertising campaign, dubbed “Boxed Out,” playing on the cardboard boxes that have become the hallmark of home deliveries, to highlight the threat faced by indie bookstores. A bookstore in Washington had covered their front windows with a giant brown cardboard, where one of the logos read, “Buy books from people who want to sell books, not colonize the Moon”, referring to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space travel side-project, Blue Origins.

Looking for aid

A number of authors and even Merriam-Webster Dictionary have taken to Twitter to champion indie bookstores. Since the second week of March, BINC, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, in the US, which provides financial assistance to booksellers, received over 670 applications requesting for emergency funding. This is more than what the foundation has received in total in the last eight years, from 2012 to 2019.

After the memo was shared widely online, #savethestrand was trending on Twitter, urging people to support the business by buying books. (Source: Facebook/Strand Book Store)

Many owners have also turned to crowdfunding, majority of them launching GoFundMe campaigns to help them pay bills and retain employees. In their notes, they mention that while they have turned to online deliveries, these are not enough to sustain a business model based on walk-in traffic.

Help is also coming from Libro.fm, an audiobooks platform and Amazon’s Audible competitor, as it is sending its earnings to local bookstores. It has been clocking in a 300 per cent increase in membership since the lockdown.📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

Why is Bookshop.org making news?

Being touted as the “ethical rival” to Amazon, Bookshop.org, which launched its beta version earlier this year, has been hailed as a success, as more than 900 stores have signed up since January, and it has helped generate more than $7.5 million for them. On Bookshop, when a customer elects to buy a book through a specific store, 30 per cent of the sale goes straight to that store. And in transactions, where customers have not marked a specific shop, 10 per cent of the sale is distributed evenly among the participating bookstores, allowing even those with a lesser pre-existing following to reap some of the profits. Over 100 bookstores in the UK have signed with the online store, ahead of its launch next month.

The rise and fall of Big Box stores

Apart from being a classic American romcom, the 1998 Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks-starrer You’ve Got Mail also became a timeless allegory for the charming independent bookstore, and the threat it faced from a big box chain. These chains emerged in the ’60s as the suburban malls became common and popular in the US. Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million gained popularity in the ’90s and made indie bookstores an unsustainable business. Between 2000 and 2007, about 1,000 stores closed, while Borders went from 21 stores in 1992 to 256 superstores in 1999. Barnes & Noble saw even greater growth.

Indie bookstores launch national #BoxedOut campaign (Photo: Business Wire/AP)

However, they could not compete with Amazon, Borders went bankrupt in 2011, and the fate of Barnes & Noble appears uncertain. The number of Barnes & Noble stores have dropped from 681 in 2005 to 627 at the end of 2019. Since they are listed as public companies, they had no option but to compete with the e-commerce giant and were forced to pursue high sales volume at the expense of inventories, which is a challenge as books have a selective audience. Since Amazon is not a retailer, it could carry massive inventories as a drag on its earnings. unlike the chains, which have to show higher sales, more stores, and lower inventory to justify their stock prices.

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