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Fueled by social media and online sales, indie bookstores making unexpected recovery

Dec 2, 2016

Just a few short years ago, the future of independent bookstores looked bleak. First, they were undercut by big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, which could often offer both lower prices and a greater selection. Then, Amazon arrived on the scene, upending the book-selling business with all the grace of a gorilla reorganizing a library.  

Today, Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble is downsizing, and independent bookstores?

You could say they've turned a new page.

That's the message of Amy Haimerl​'s recent story for the New York Times. An author and Michigan native, Haimerl told Stateside that, far from merely surviving the tumult of recent years, independent bookstores are thriving.

“In the last five years we’ve seen the number of independent bookstores increase 20%,” she said. “But even more importantly, the sales of books from non-online sources, meaning not an Amazon, but from retail shops, has actually increased last year for the first time in a decade. And this year, we’re almost ready to beat last year’s numbers.”

How are they doing it? The surprising answer is: by taking their businesses online.

Peter Makin is the owner of Brilliant Books, an independent bookstore located in Traverse City. He realized early on that the internet was going to change his business. But instead of resisting that change, Makin embraced it.  

“There was a school of thought that said that one could either be online or retail, but to me it really just going to be a case of retail was changing,” he told us. “You no longer needed to go shopping so when you went shopping you did it deliberately. And therefore you were going for the experience you were having.”

Today, Makin’s Brilliant Books earns 30% of its sales through online orders. It cultivates an online customer base with a full-time social media manager. And it has a subscription service that offers customized book recommendations to anyone who signs up.

“What we’re really trying to do is to give people the same sort of excellent experience they’d have within the bookstore when they’re with us online,” Makin said. “And I think that’s really the key to successful social media is being able to give people the same sort of experience, so that they realize it’s you, and not just a random voice.”

Listen to our full conversation with Peter Makin and Amy Haimerl above.

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