Small bookstores: are they ready?

A customer browses through the pages of a hardback novel in a charming store stacked from floor to ceiling with books of every variety. A small bell chimes as another shopper enters and exchanges words with the owner. Later that night, an author will be coming to speak about their work, an event hosted by the store.These are the experiences that only a small bookstore can offer. Small bookstores, that only one can suspect, with the dawn of the digital age, are on the verge of death. Or are they?With the recent invention of the digital or “e” book, it’s become increasingly difficult for small shops to remain in business.

According to the latest US federal statistics, over 1,000 bookstores closed between 2000 and 2007, leaving around 10,600 still in operation.

Borders, one of the largest bookstore chains to sweep the nation, completed closing all of its book “superstores” in the summer of 2011. What hope does this give ti St. Louis’ independent companies with only one location?

Neil Jaffe of Booksource, a former distributor to independent bookstores, thinks that the best hope for independents is to join the revolution. “[They need to] evolve to stay relevant,” he said.

Subterranean Books, a small store in St. Louis’ Loop district, is trying to do just that.

“We had been selling eBooks through Google for about three years until [they] stopped allowing outside retailers to sell their products,” Kelly von Plonski, a manager at the bookstore, said.

Subterranean recently partnered with Kobo, a company that’s providing small bookstores with the materials that bigger, chain stores can use to gain customers in the eBook market.

Kobo is owned by Rakuten, a Tokyo-based “eCommerce” company, and is focused on the idea that readers should be able to read a digital book on any device. With over 2.5 million eBook, magazine, and newspaper titles in their digital library, Kobo provides booklovers with the resources to read about nearly anything.

“We knew we wanted to provide our readers a choice of reading styles and the Kobo partnership seems to be working out,” von Plonski said.

But Subterranean’s paperback market doesn’t seems to be going away.

“Paperback books are our bread and butter,” von Plonski said. “Runner-up in frequency bought are hardcovers with electronic editions following way behind.”

But at least the options are there. According to von Plonski, this past December has been the best month of sales they’ve had since opening 12 years ago in October of 2000. The fact that they have both a digital library and a physical library appears to be helping their sales.

The biggest threat to an independent bookstore, or any bookstore, really, is Amazon.com. With the introduction of the Kindle in November of 2007, they’ve begun to take over book sales all over the world. With the ability to sell physical books on the cheap and eBooks, Amazon.com can cater to any reader, anywhere in the world, without coming into real contact with the buyer.

“There is something to be gained from the human interaction than what the computer-generated recommendation algorithm provides,” von Plonski said. “Something that, I guess, we’re getting right.”

The biggest thing small bookstores can do is stay ahead of the game. With technology advancing so quickly, it’s hard for a small business to keep up. The introduction of Kobo, continuing to form friendships with customers and keeping the personal “we know exactly what you’re looking for” feel that only a small bookstore can provide, is essential to keeping the independents alive in this digital age.