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Why Independent Bookstores Matter Now More Than Ever

Independent bookstores directly serve the community and the individual. Their contributions are invaluable—and in ways that aren’t being replicated online.
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by Julie Rosenberg

This past year and a half has been one of turmoil, noise and political chaos, rising to a level that most of us have never experienced. In our world of uncertainty and change, self-care is perhaps more important than ever. Amid an onslaught of 24-7 news and a seemingly increasingly unstable world, we need to find points of calm. I have found a major haven over the past few years in independent bookstores, and I wanted to talk a little bit about as to why I think they’re more important today than ever.

Sure, online retailers (and I’m sure we all have the “big one” in mind) can offer customers significantly lower prices and an exponentially greater book inventory. Yes, there’s also the convenience factor: Customers don’t need to leave home to buy a book; they can do so from the comfort of their own couch with just the click of a button. But it’s important to remember that the online retailers are e-commerce specialists, not booksellers. Booksellers are people – they are consummate bibliophiles who take joy in matching reader to writer. And that human component is an important part of the literary experience.

Independent bookstores directly serve the community and the individual. Their contributions are invaluable—and in ways that aren’t being replicated online. Independent bookstores support core values of community, creativity, convening, civility and contact:

Community: Independent bookstores are often fixtures in the communities that they serve, acting as everything from a safe space for kids to come to after school, to an enjoyable way for a group of friends to pass a Saturday afternoon. Indie bookstores also help to strengthen the economic base of the local community. In a 2015 “Dear Reader” post, Roxanne Coady—owner of R. J. Julia, an independent bookstore in Madison, CT—said, "For every $100 you spend in a locally owned store, $73 stays in the local economy, whereas $100 spent in national chains returns $43 to the local economy.” Not only do you get a book for those dollars you spend in local stores, but they stay in your community.

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Creativity: Independent bookstores support our creativity. Many offer book clubs, author events, themed reading groups, lectures, and other activities that open the door to new thoughts and new ideas. Books have helped to shape the minds of the most creative and innovative thinkers. With shelves of indie stores often packed to the brim, hours can pass as you explore, ponder, and perhaps discover that “unexpected gem” that sparks your next big idea.

Convening: The local bookstore offers a home to both authors and readers. It is a welcoming place to come together and to feel comfortable and at ease. It is a place for like-minded individuals to gather together and exchange ideas.

Civility: Local bookstores are typically known for treating clients with civility and respect. Customers are commonly greeted by name. In so many environments, people feel lost and unseen. In the local bookstore, they feel humanized and known.

Contact: Independent booksellers value engaging those who read, and this personal contact is critical for all of us. Booksellers focus on long-term relationships with customers, and they seek to enhance the direct customer experience through personalized and specialized services. Knowing the customer and supporting their individual interests and needs helps to ensure customer retention.

 Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative, by Chuck Wendig

Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative, by Chuck Wendig

I have been passionate about books and independent bookstores since I was a teenager. They have enhanced my literary life and my experiences in reading. The experience of being in a bookstore and finding that “just right” book cannot be underestimated. I can get lost for hours – perusing the aisles, experiencing the scent of new books, feeling the pages, checking out the weekly staff picks, and occasionally reading my new book in the adjacent coffee shop while drinking a strong cup of expresso. As the noise of our culture has become greater, I relish the environment of quietude and peace at the local bookstore. During my 300-hour yoga teacher training in 2015, I traveled from my home in Connecticut to Brookline, MA, one weekend per month. The training hours were very long, and, on Saturday nights, I looked forward to spending at least an hour of my free time at the Brookline Booksmith. I would stroll through the aisles, getting lost in my own thoughts until the moment that I would find my next great discovery—and then treat myself to a new book.

I’ve had a life-long relationship with bookstores that suddenly developed a new component in 2017 when I became an author myself. Seeing my new book on the front tables and on the shelves of some of my favorite stores was one of the greatest feelings in the world. I myself was now among the ranks of some of my favorite writers; someone browsing in the store in an evening or on the weekend might actually discover a book by me!

As a new author, of course I want to sell a million copies of my book. I wrote my Beyond the Mat to pay it forward—to take the lessons I’ve learned as a physician and in my personal life to help people optimize their health, well-being and personal leadership—and I hope that many people get the message. But the “one” reader is just as important to me as those big sales numbers. I hope that, on an individual level, my book helps one person at a time. And that most often starts with a trusted bookseller or knowledgeable employee talking to a reader who wants guidance and saying, “Here, try this great book.”

So I want to say thank you to all the bookstores and booksellers out there. Thank you for working so hard in a business that you love. Thank you for carving out a space for us to be ourselves and connect with other people. Thank you for helping us find the books that will change our lives.

And to all the readers, I want to say: Think before you click. That convenience of the online giant is fine sometimes, sure, but it also is well worth your time—trudging out in the rain and the snow—to the store in your town. The relationship among readers, writers, publishers, independent booksellers is vital today, in an era in which it’s more important than ever to support community. And when you think about all the ways in which an independent bookstore has impacted your life, don’t forget: We are as important to them as they are for us.

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Julie Rosenberg, MD, is a physician executive and experienced healthcare leader who oversees global drug development programs in the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, Julie has devoted the last 15 years to the in-depth study and practice of yoga. She received her advanced teaching certification from Down Under Yoga in Boston in 2015. Julie views yoga as preventive medicine. She teaches yoga primarily “beyond the mat,” helping individuals and groups to apply the principles and practice of yoga to their daily lives and to support their overall health and well-being, to achieve greater success, and to become more effective leaders. In 2017, she was selected by Number 1 executive coach and leadership thinker Marshall Goldsmith from among 16,000 applicants as one of the MG 100 coaches. Her first book—Beyond the Mat: Achieve Focus, Presence, and Enlightened Leadership Through the Principles and Practice of Yoga—is published by Da Capo/Hachette Books. For more information, visit her website.

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