Recap & Photos | Independent Bookstores: Alive and Kicking!

Recap & Photos | Independent Bookstores: Alive and Kicking!

Last Thursday night, Bookbuilders invited the owners and managers of four local bookstores to Beacon Press for the educational panel “Independent Bookstores: Alive and Kicking!” Since 2009, the number of active independent booksellers across America has increased over 20 percent—and our panelists were proud their stores are thriving.

Sketches by Louis Roe

Sketches by Louis Roe

“We had a Barnes & Noble a block away from us for fifteen years,” said Dana Brigham, co-owner and manager of the Brookline Booksmith. “They left and we didn’t.” Indeed, the Booksmith has been selling books and hosting authors since it opened in 1961. David Sandberg, co-owner of Porter Square Books, attributes the recent upswing to a healthy urban environment for these stores. “The key is adapting,” he said.

Thursday’s panel spanned generations of Boston’s indie stores: from two long-beloved bookstores (the Booksmith and Harvard Book Store) to Porter Square Books, 11 years strong, and the new Papercuts J.P. This Jamaica Plain shop opened its intimate 500-square-foot storefront last year during the holidays. Owner Kate Layte said her business serves the needs of her immediate community, and hopes other neighborhoods around town will follow her lead. “Open your own bookstore!” she urged the audience.

As the only full-time staffer, Layte personally selects the books on her shelves, choosing titles she feels strongly about. “Three years ago, I started neurotically keeping lists of my favorite books. That’s how I built my stock,” she said. But drawing an audience isn’t just personal taste. “What really sells is a product that’s packaged well,” she said, showing off examples of eye-catching books she sells across many genres. (Papercuts tip: check out Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group.)

Kate Layte of Papercuts J.P. shows off a striking cover design.

Papercuts J.P. owner Kate Layte brought a tote bag full of books as show-and-tell to demonstrate how she chooses which books to stock.

Our panelists didn’t just talk books. Sandberg emphasized that indie bookstores really are a business, and profit margins are key no matter their size. A store’s gross margin usually falls around 40% of sales, which pays for space, staff, overhead … and the books themselves. “You don’t generally own a bookstore to get rich,” he said. Sandberg is a recent indie owner—he and his wife purchased Porter Square Books in 2013—and part of a growing trend of bookstores bought by people passionate about keeping them around. Our moderator Gillian Kohli, president of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, is on this list, too; she and her husband purchased Wellesley Books in 2010 from the Booksmith.

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We enjoyed a great crowd and a lively Q&A, moderated by Gillian Kohli, president of the New England Independent Booksellers Association and co-owner of Wellesley Books

Marketing has helped the bookstore evolve, said Carole Horne, Harvard Book Store’s general manager. Working at Harvard since 1974, Horne praised social media and email marketing as fundamental and affordable ways to attract book lovers. Events can be a double-edged sword for a bookstore: only 20% of attendees usually purchase the book, even for big-name authors, and yet publishers often desire bigger off-site events. But readings can be crucial for writers. An author in attendance thanked the panel for making it possible to get her books out there.

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So what keeps these independent bookstores alive? Loyalty, the panel agreed. The buy-local movement. Doing what major retailers don’t, from selling signed copies of a bestseller to used books and remainders (20% of Harvard Book Store’s sales) to whimsical gift items sprinkled throughout a store that attract the eye. Staying in the game sometimes means catching the latest trend—or as Sandberg said, “God bless the coloring book!”

Special thanks to Louis Roe for photographing and sketching this event!

Josh Garstka

About Josh Garstka

As Contracts Manager at O’Reilly Media, Josh Garstka negotiates the fine print with O’Reilly’s authors and training instructors. Previously, Josh worked for six years at Pearson Education in rights and permissions. Outside of publishing, he plays violin with the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and writes a film blog at yougottagetacritic.com.