Brenna Sych

FIG 1. Booklover mug – Giftware carried by McNally Robinson Booksellers (Photo by Brenna Sych)

Bookstores are magical places, places where stories and knowledge are sitting waiting to be discovered. The scent of coffee and ink and pages mixing together to create a tempting space to spend an afternoon.

But is that idea dying?

I hear it whenever I say I work in a bookstore, “Those still exist?” Now I’ve been a bookseller at a local independent bookstore for five years, specifically in children’s books, but I have worked all over, and I’ve seen how the focus of the store has changed in that time.

While there has been reports that the number of independent bookstores is up (American Booksellers Association). The question is, how long will that last and how have bookstores changed to last this long?

One: Focus on non-book lines and items:

Books are bought by bookstores at cost, which typically is about 45% off cover price; now this does not apply to giant chains which might barter for a higher discount. This is for smaller indie stores. This discount does not provide a large profit to the bookstore, and when book sales are down bookstores have begun to rely on non-book lines to make up the difference.

The non-book lines could be stationery, house décor, clothing, jewelry, toys for children and anything in between. For giftware the profit margin is larger for the bookstore, and therefore giftware takes space away from books.

This is not particular to my own bookstore; this addition of non-book lines has been practiced by others as well. Here I have an example of The Strand Bookstore in New York.

Fig. 2 The Strand Bookstore in New York City. Photo: Strand Bookstore, Instagram.

Fig. 3 : Harry Potter display (Photo by Brenna Sych)

While these are non-book lines, there is something to be said for giftware inspired by literature. A special one to talk about is Harry Potter; fans will recognize the mugs and coasters with the house crest upon them.

Now, what does giftware mean for the independent store? It means they can stay open and stay in business in order to sell those books. It means that bookstores are not a one-stop shop for one item where you leave right away; you wander and discover things you never expected to find.

Two: Social Media

I help run the social media accounts for my store and in doing so I see how much social media helped to promote what we carry. Social media provides another way the bookstore can interact with the customer. Through posting photos of new arrivals, bestsellers, and new stock the independent bookstore interacts with their customers. Therefore encouraging the customer to visit and explore the store.

An example I have of the success of social media is when the video of the Scottish grandmother reading the book The Wonky Donkey went viral. That book was out of print at the time, but the popularity and demand brought it back. When we found out it was being reprinted we announced that we were taking orders on Facebook and within the first week we had over 100 preorders for this book. That was back in October, since then we’ve sold over 700 copies and it was the bestselling book of the year in our store.

Social media allows bookstores to connect with customers.

Three: The experience

Fig. 4 : Display based around books about books (Photo by Miranda, used with permission)

The experience of going into a bookstore is unique, from the smells of coffee of the attached café or restaurant to the shelves and shelves of books waiting to be discovered. You discover old and new favorites; feel nostalgic about kids’ books that you read as a child. The act of going into a bookstore becomes special. Bookstores are where customers go to wander and experience everything they have to offer.

The independent bookstore sells the experience. Signs and quotes speak to the personality of the bookstore. The displays are eye catching and are art pieces in themselves.

To survive the independent bookstore created an experience that online sales couldn’t replicate. They created a space where imagination took physical form, where stories existed at your fingertips.

Fig. 5 Sign above dinosaur section in kids dept. (Photo by Brenna)

Bookstores give an experience that digital bookstores can’t replicate.

Now the question, are bookstores dying? Reports of closing bookstores are coming all the time, while reports of bookstores opening are less frequent. However, they are still happening. Independent bookstores have adapted to surviving. They may not look like the bookstores from 20 years ago but most things don’t look like their predecessors; they adapt and change to suit the environment.

Bookstores are no different. They become part of the community wherever they are, from providing programs for children and spaces for book signings. Bookstore’s have adapted to survive, and I believe will continue for years.



American Booksellers Association. “Independent Bookstores are Thriving” American Booksellers Association. Accessed March 24, 2019

Mitchell, Mandy. “After Decades of disappearing indie bookstores bounce back.” 01 April, 2018.