Defined: As NY’s ‘The Strand’ requires assist, are indie bookstores in disaster worldwide?

Written by Surbhi Gupta, published by Explained Desk | New Delhi |

October 29, 2020 2:36:19 pm


The Strand, with a catalog of 2.5 million new, used, and rare books, is the last of the 48 bookstores that once made up the famous Book Row, spread over six blocks on Fourth Avenue. (Source: Facebook / Strand Book Store)

New York’s most famous bookstore, The Strand, known for its “18 Miles of Books,” could fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic as the business is no longer sustainable, its owner Nancy Bass Wyden said in a memo in the social media. The plea reflects the challenge that hundreds of independent, family-run bookstores around the world have been facing since March. Even after reopening after the lockdown, social distancing norms and stiff competition from e-commerce giants have left them poorly established.

What is the meaning of The Strand?

The Strand, with a catalog of 2.5 million new, used, and rare books, is the last of the 48 bookstores that once made up the famous Book Row, spread over six blocks on Fourth Avenue. The 93-year-old store, founded in 1927 by Benjamin Bass, a Lithuanian expatriate, weathered the Great Depression, World War II, the emergence of big box stores and disruption from e-commerce giants. The New York Times named it “the undisputed king of the city’s independent bookstores” in 2016.

What did its owner say in the memo?

Bass Wyden, the third-generation owner, said the store’s sales were down nearly 70 percent in the past eight months year-over-year and that due to the “huge drop in foot traffic, there was an almost complete loss of tourism and none.” In-store events ”.

📣 We need your help. This is the post we would hopefully never make, but today it marks a major turning point in The Strand history. Our sales are down nearly 70% year over year, and the credit and cash reserves that have kept us afloat over the past few months are exhausted. pic.twitter.com/mI074pigZu

– Strand Book Store (@strandbookstore) October 23, 2020

“While the PPP loan we received and our cash reserves enabled us to weather the losses of the past eight months, we are now at a turning point where our business is no longer sustainable,” she said.

What response did it get from customers?

After the memo got widespread, #savethestrand hit the ground running on Twitter, asking people to help the business by buying books. Many lined up in front of the store on the weekend and there was also a daily record of 10,000 online orders on Saturday, causing their website to crash. In the 48 hours since the call for help, The Strand had processed 25,000 online orders, which would have been around 600 in a normal two-day period. One of the customers had ordered 197 books online.

Why are indie bookstores struggling to stay afloat?

Indie bookstores take on the role of literary salons for local communities. They are a collection of old and rare books. Customers turn to them for personalized suggestions and rare finds, and they have a history of helping new writers and independent printers. For this they are dependent on local and loyal customers. With stores closed due to the lockdown, many saw no sales. They work with very low profit margins anyway and fear a shift in consumer behavior towards online shopping.

The larger indie stores have higher costs due to the larger footprint and sizeable staff, and require higher sales to keep going. Hence, they rely on book readings and author’s signatures as an additional source of income. There are usually around 400 events a year on the beach. But none of these could take place in the last few months.

In the 48 hours since the call for help, The Strand had processed 25,000 online orders, which would have been around 600 in a normal two-day period. (Source: Facebook / Strand Book Store)

The American Booksellers Association said 35 indie bookstores affiliated with it have closed the store since the pandemic, and fears an additional 20 percent are at risk of closing. Compared to 2019, when 104 new bookstores opened during the year, only 30 opened in 2020.

The dominance of Amazon

Since Amazon opened its online bookstore in 1995, its impact on the book industry has only grown. It publishes books on Amazon Publishing, serves as a digital library on Prime Reading, its Kindle e-reader dominates the e-book market, and owns Goodreads, a popular book-based social networking platform.

It accounts for more than half of all book sales and three quarters of all books or e-books bought online, according to Codex, a research firm for the book audience. In the past five years, Amazon’s share of all books has increased 16 percent. Publishers also spend a large part of their marketing budget on the platform, which is known to create or interrupt a new publication when a book is placed.

In a direct attack on Amazon earlier this month, ABA launched an ad campaign titled “Boxed Out” that plays on the cardboard boxes that have become the trademark of home delivery to highlight the threat to indie bookstores. A Washington bookstore had its front window covered with a huge brown cardboard box that had one of the logos on it, “Buy books from people who want to sell books, don’t colonize the moon,” referring to Amazon’s spaceflight. CEO Jeff Bezos. Project, Blue Origins.

Looking for help

A number of authors, and even the Merriam-Webster dictionary, have reached out to Twitter to advocate for indie bookstores. As of the second week of March, BINC, the United States’ Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which provides financial assistance to booksellers, has received over 670 emergency funding requests. This is more than what the foundation received in total over the past eight years from 2012 to 2019.

After the memo got widespread, #savethestrand hit the ground running on Twitter, asking people to help the business by buying books. (Source: Facebook / Strand Book Store)

Many owners have also turned to crowdfunding. Most of them launch GoFundMe campaigns to pay bills and retain employees. In their notes, they mention that while they have turned to online delivery, it is not enough to maintain a business model based on walkable traffic.

Help is also coming from Libro.fm, an audiobook platform and Amazon’s Audible competitor, as the proceeds are sent to local bookstores. Membership has increased by 300 percent since the lockdown.

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Why is Bookshop.org making news?

Bookshop.org, which launched its beta version earlier this year and is touted as an “ethical rival” for Amazon, has been hailed as a success with more than 900 stores signing up since January and generating more than $ 7.5 became millions for them. At the bookstore, if a customer chooses to buy a book through a particular store, 30 percent of the sale goes directly to that store. And for transactions in which customers have not marked a specific shop, 10 percent of the sale is evenly distributed among the participating bookstores, so that even those with a smaller fan base can make a part of the profit. Over 100 bookstores in the UK have signed a contract with the online store ahead of next month’s launch.

The rise and fall of the big box stores

1998 Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks star You’ve Got Mail is not just a classic American romcom, it’s a timeless allegory for the charming independent bookstore and the threat of a major boxing chain. These chains originated in the 1960s when the malls became common and popular in the United States. Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million grew in popularity in the 90s, turning indie bookstores into an unsustainable business. About 1,000 stores closed between 2000 and 2007, while Borders rose from 21 stores in 1992 to 256 superstores in 1999. Barnes & Noble saw even greater growth.

Indie bookstores launch national #BoxedOut campaign (Photo: Business Wire / AP)

They couldn’t compete with Amazon, however, Borders went bankrupt in 2011, and Barnes & Noble’s fate seems uncertain. The number of Barnes & Noble stores has dropped from 681 in 2005 to 627 at the end of 2019. Being listed as a public company, they had no choice but to compete with the e-commerce giant and had to aim for high sales volume at the expense of inventory, which is a challenge given that books have a selective audience. Since Amazon is not a retailer, it could hold massive inventory levels, which weighs on its profits. Unlike the chains, which need to have higher sales, more stores, and lower inventory to justify their stock prices.

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