The third place: local bookstores grapple with shifting trends

By Leah Asmelash

The smell of paper fills the store — a mix of almond and vanilla and something slightly floral. Bookshelves line the walls of the store, but the open middle space is filled with tables of books, many with written staff reviews sticking out. There’s a kid’s corner in the back with stuffed animals and games, a used book room, an event room and a corner devoted to local books, including travel, culinary, culture and sports. An indie rock song plays softly overhead. A plush chair sits pushed against the window, facing the store’s staff picks. Behind the front desk, a young employee peeks out behind a stack of books and smiles at every customer that walks in, asking if they need any help.

Customers are scattered throughout the space. Someone laughs at a passage they read and puts the book down with a smile. Another is engrossed in a novel, standing still beside the table, head ducked in concentration. They all have come to spend their Tuesday night with the stacks at Flyleaf Books.

Located in a strip mall in Chapel Hill, N.C., Flyleaf Books is one of the largest independent bookstores in town, with a collection of over 20,000 units. They host a number of book clubs every month and offer a membership program and online ordering through their website, allowing readers to stop by and pick up their purchases.

Independent bookstores have been in decline for years, the cause changing each time. First it was mega bookstores, the Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Millions of the world. Then it was Amazon, and then e-books. And yet, you can still find an independent bookstore almost anywhere in the United States, and their numbers are growing. In 2012, book sales in independent stores grew by almost 8 percent. In 2015, independent bookstore sales were up 10 percent, while 2016 saw an increase of just under 5 percent.

E-book competition

“For the last 30, 40 years, there’s always been something that’s going to kill the independent bookstore,” said Jamie Fiocco, who opened Flyleaf Books in November 2009 — at the height of the e-book surge.  “Once the internet came about, you had to really be a businessperson to have a bookstore, so a lot of bookstores closed.”

Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer of the American Booksellers Association, said over email that independent booksellers are a resilient and entrepreneurial group, traits which have allowed them to experience growth.

“The national trends are clear,” Cullen said. “New stores are opening, established stores are finding new owners and a new generation is coming into the business as both owner/managers and frontline booksellers.”

Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, discussed the importance of the localism movement to the success of independent bookstores.

“The fact is that independent bookstores and independent retail in general is going through a pretty decent period because tens of millions of consumers make decisions to shop at locally-owned independent businesses,” he said.

When asked about the impact of e-books on bookstores, Teicher responded, “E-books are a piece of our business, but we kind of coexist.”

He also pointed out that the e-book market has somewhat leveled off and has begun to experience modest decline. “E-books aren’t going away for sure, but more importantly, print books are never going away,” he said.

Fiocco had a similar viewpoint. Flyleaf Books sells e-books, but she said they don’t concentrate on those sales.

“There’s no money in it to start with, and it’s not really worth our time,” she said. “Quite honestly, our core shoppers aren’t interested in e-books.”

But data shows the amount of books Americans are reading, both print and electronic, is declining each year. So who cares about independent bookstores? Why do they matter?

The third place

Fiocco said bookstores are vital because they fulfill the role of the third place for many people. This third place, the first two places being the home and workplace, serves as a gathering place for the community. It is a place where people can congregate and discuss, like a home away from home.

“They’re a place where people can come and talk about ideas and issues that are pertinent to the community,” Fiocco said. “It’s a gathering place. It’s like the barbershop or the coffee shop, where people can talk and think and kind of learn about new things, or to educate themselves on things they feel like they should know about.”

Additionally, Teicher said independent bookstores succeed by being the third place in a community.

“I think the important thing today is that successful indie bookstores exist well beyond the four walls of the store,” he said. “They succeed because they engage, they have to be engaged, in their communities. That’s really critical.”

Some bookstores today are taking their role as the third place to the next level by combining two or more concepts into one store, Teicher said, mentioning bookstores sometimes double as bars or summer day camps. Still, he was not oblivious to the difficulties surrounding the business.

“Our margins are very small; competition is fierce,” he said.  “You’ve got to create a compelling, fun environment to attract customers to want to come shop in your store.”

Fiocco agreed. “We sell people the experience of going into a bookstore, learning about books they never have heard about, or just didn’t know anything about, when they first walked in,” she said. “We don’t depend on all the bestseller lists, and that’s why we exist. People come in and we’re friends or we’re acquaintances by the time people become regulars.”

Lane Jacobson, buyer and floor manager of Flyleaf, said the store is always working on ways to engage the community and expand its reach. Flyeleaf hosts over 300 events a year, including community forums.

“Right now we’re also looking into things like movie clubs, yoga classes, wine and coloring nights and other things,” he stated over email. “One of the best things about being a small business with such strong ties to the community is that we can be very flexible and adapt to the needs and desires of our customers much more quickly than a big box store can.”

Closing shop

Despite Flyleaf’s success within the community, not all bookstores have been so lucky. The Bookshop, a used and rare bookstore located just over a mile from Flyleaf, has been in business since 1985, but will be closing its doors this July.

The Bookshop is built like a narrow tunnel lined with books. The shelves stretch from ceiling to floor and emphasize the compact nature of the store. Customers twist and turn between the shelves, muttering apologies as they brush against other patrons. Despite their close proximity, the store is essentially the polar opposite of the wide and open Flyleaf Books.

Betty Schumacher, manager of The Bookshop, has been working there for 10 years. She said the store has been pretty slow and quiet during her time at The Bookshop, despite the establishment’s location on Franklin Street, less than a mile from UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We get a lot of traffic,” she said. “But sales are pretty flat and have been flat for probably the last eight years.”

Schumacher stressed the importance of the community, something she believes The Bookshop missed out on due to its location.

“We do get a lot of university students in, in the winter, but we don’t get the townspeople,” she said. “And the townspeople are the people who buy the books. Our best months are July and August. That’s when the townspeople come back to town.”

Schumacher also discussed the importance of parking, saying the lack of adequate parking around the store hurts sales as well.

Shifting trends

The Bookshop’s predicament isn’t necessarily indicative of larger trends regarding independent bookstores, which, as Cullen pointed out, have been growing over recent years. But it does show how some customers, young people especially, are hesitant to purchase books.

“A lot of people blame it on Kindles and those kinds of things, but I really think it’s that people are so drawn to electronics in general, that there’s just fewer people reading,” Schumacher said. “The average median age of our customer base is probably 40s and 50s, even with the student population added in. So I just think younger people are reading less.”

Schumacher said she doesn’t see that trend changing any time soon, and she was not nearly as optimistic as Teicher and Fiocco about the future of the independent bookstore. Reading, she said, will never go away and books will probably take a different form, such as electronic.

“But bookstores with books in them, I think, are becoming a thing of the past,” she said.

Despite her grim prediction, Schumacher said she’ll miss the store, the smell, the books and the customers. Her experience at The Bookshop has been enjoyable, and she said she is sad to see it go.

To readers, Schumacher gave this advice: “Buy books, and buy items, at independent stores,” she said. “Whenever they can, if they can, support local small business. Otherwise, we’re going to lose them.”

Edited by: Sarah Muzzillo