One of the questions I get asked a lot is what accounts for the renaissance of independent bookstores. Business is up, new stores are opening—what gives?
There are several factors that have led to this growth, but one of the major contributors is increasing consumer awareness of the value of supporting their local community. The Shop Local First movement has exploded in recent years, as more and more people come to understand that spending their dollars in their local neighborhood or community adds greatly to their quality of life. And I’m not talking just about the convenience of a local retail “Main Street”; there is a significant economic value in shopping locally.
Several retail studies have been done across the country, in big cities and small towns, and all have come up with similar numbers. When a consumer spends $100 in locally owned retail businesses, $45 is recirculated in the local economy. When that same $100 is spent in chain stores, the local reinvestment drops to $23. Spend that same $100 at an out-of-state online retailer, the local cut is almost zero.
Why? Because an independent business buys supplies from other local businesses, hires local accountants and web designers, and attracts customers who shop at neighboring establishments. A chain has centralized buying, its own accountants and lawyers, and sends its daily revenues directly to its own bank. And an out-of-state online entity doesn’t even employ local people, so their contribution is negligible.
That message, as well as ones about the sense of community that is created and sustained by neighborhood shopping areas, is being delivered by independent bookstores and other locally owned retailers, being picked up by the media, and being noticed by politicians. The growth of farmer’s markets is an obvious indicator that folks are getting the message, but the fact that booksellers have been at the forefront of the movement has also made an impression with their customers.
The consumers have the power—they can choose where to shop and why. But more and more are recognizing that shopping for price alone carries with it other costs. If they don’t support their local businesses, they may not have them around to enjoy. If that doesn’t matter, fine. But if a vibrant community fueled by a strong local retail presence is important, then they need to support it. And they are, in increasing numbers.
In many of these neighborhoods, independent bookstores are front and center, often serving as community gathering spots with their events and store activities. And as consumers are supporting their local economy, many are also rediscovering the unparalleled experience of visiting a real bookstore, touching real books, and having real conversations with their friends and neighbors. And guess what? If they buy a book or two, that experience will always be there.
Hut Landon is the executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and a guiding hand behind Book Sense, a regional branding effort for independent bookstores that eventually became a national marketing campaign. He also serves as executive director of SFLOMA, the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchant Alliance, which was created in 2006 by local merchants.