Alta Journal: “Saving Bookstores in the Age of Amazon”

From a story on by Nasim Ghasemiyeh headlined “Booksellers Try to Imagine a Future for Themselves. Will Readers Buy It?”:

With each passing day, book lovers find themselves increasingly unable to resist the siren call of one-day shipping, making Amazon, already among the most profitable companies in the world, bigger and stronger. Publishers and proprietors of bookstores, the spaces once cherished as literary-community hubs, are being asked to play by Amazon’s rules or forfeit the book game entirely.

Earlier this month, some of bookselling’s best minds and most enthusiastic supporters gathered for Reimagining Bookstores, a virtual conference launched by Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. The goal: to come up with practical solutions to ensure a future for their businesses and the communities that rely on them. Twenty-three other bookstores from 12 states, including six California locations, jumped in to cohost the gathering, which drew a diverse crowd of booksellers, publishers, buyers, authors, and readers from across the country….

Taking part over two days, Reimagining Bookstores featured Zoom rooms where people shared ideas about strengthening the sorts of spaces many of us have found refuge in over the course of our lives. My own first internship was at City Lights Publishers, located in the upstairs offices of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. Seeing fellow readers peruse the towering shelves or discover the stairway to the maze of books downstairs made the BART ride across the Bay worth every screeching minute. Attending Reimagining Bookstores was an opportunity to meet and talk with others who knew the feeling of seeing a lone customer pause in front of a book that might completely change their life….

Praveen Madan, the CEO of Kepler’s, kicked off the event. “I’m absolutely convinced that we can create a strong and exciting future for bookstores everywhere, but we are gonna need a lot of help,” he told the virtual crowd.

With his background in technology, Madan is an unusual avatar for bookstores, but perhaps the right person to rethink the business of selling books. After an early career as a consultant, he and his wife, Christin Evans, revitalized San Francisco’s Booksmith. In 2011, he became CEO of Kepler’s, a Menlo Park institution founded in 1955 that he restructured as a hybrid of for-profit and nonprofit….

There were conversations about how to bring more teens into bookstores, which inevitably turned to TikTok talk and conversations around ambassadors and role models. Other rooms took stabs at issues like horrific rents, living wages, the role of smaller bookstores in offering social services that libraries are currently overwhelmed by, and the ever-looming confusion of why the wealthy aren’t opening their pockets to help finance bookstores….

Day two began with Madan calling attention to the fact that bookstores are good for our communities and that they must ask for help to continue to serve and become more essential. That might mean adopting new models like nonprofits, hybrids, and cooperatives. He was also emphatic that a living wage for bookstore staff must be achieved….Finally, he acknowledged plainly that booksellers need to save themselves, this event being one way to start that effort….

Discussions included a debate about forming unions for bookselling staff versus asking customers to “tip” a bookseller who helped them or adding surcharges to their total purchases to support bookstore employees, differentiating pain points for booksellers versus those of customers, and a potential Stewardship Council….

While one would expect an event focused on the revival of indie bookstores to be full of hissing at Amazon and frantic brainstorming about how to bring about its demise, there was an impressive restraint from most participants, even when the behemoth’s name was invoked. One bookstore leader wrote into the chat at the end of day one, “Make sure your legislators know that you support anti-trust legislation that would force Amazon to be broken up!!” But overall, people seemed to understand that Amazon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Rather than waste resources trying to bring down a monopoly, the focus was on community action and giving bookstores a fighting chance….

As Reimagining Bookstores ended, participants seemed energized. A bulletin board was created to continue the discussions, and an email group for the nearly 600 participants was launched.

The conversation about the future of bookselling has only just begun.

Two weeks out, after witnessing firsthand the true care booksellers had for the employees who work for them, a major departure from Amazon’s blatant labor violations, I’m feeling even more committed to bookstores. The next time I desperately need a buzzworthy novel, I’ll head to my nearest indie shop rather than order it from…well, you know where. Customers are also stakeholders in this reimagining. If we keep showing up for them, booksellers will keep showing up for us….

Nasim Ghasemiyeh is an assistant editor at Alta Journal.

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