Brookline Booksmith_1

The world of reading is changing and independent bookstores are learning to adapt. With the introduction of online retailers like Amazon, which offers cheaper prices and the convenience of delivery, and devices like the kindle and e-books, the lifespan of the independent bookseller seems to be dwindling. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, half of American adults own an e-reader or tablet device. But for many small businesses, like Brookline Booksmith, they are learning to acclimate to these inevitable changes by emphasizing their assets that online retailers don’t have.

When Marshall Smith opened the doors of Brookline Booksmith in 1961, the store slogan read “dedicated to the fine art of browsing”, and to a large extent that is the store’s business model, even today. Smith’s idea was to arrange books by category rather than by publisher, which was the dominant browsing method at the time. That created a far more enjoyable experience for book buyers and is still used in most book stores today. And while independent bookstores are providing a much more personable and enjoyable buying experience than online retailers, sales strategies have shifted in order for the business to continue thriving.

Dana Brigham, general manager and co-owner of the book store, says the store hosts far more events like book signings and live readings in order to subsidize some of the store’s sales.

“The business has to change in order to remain relevant and viable. Once it was all books and music, now it’s all books and events and gifts,” Brigham said.

This bookstore, like many other independent bookstores, has become a sort of one-stop-shop destination. You enter the store intending to buy one book and you leave with that cookbook you’ve been meaning to get, a happy birthday card for you mother, and a new wall calendar because you spilled coffee all over your old one. In fact, gifts accounted for 24% of Brookline Booksmith’s gross annual sales last year.

For many independent book retailers, a ripple effect of expanding their product base is that they also expand their customer reach. Booksmith caters to a wide demographic, despite being located smack dab in the heart of college central. Brigham credits much of the store’s success to the neighborhood surrounding it.

“It’s a real community gathering place and it’s not just students that come here. We have a lot of professors, a large international base and a large Jewish community. There are a lot of families in the area and empty nesters that come back to Boston. And right now coloring books, from our children’s section, are our biggest seller.”

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to shopping at independent bookstores versus online mega retailers, is the amount of research and attention they are able to place on their inventory. Small companies like Booksmith have an experienced book-buying staff who build on trends in the current market and knowledge of what their target demographic is interested in. They also have more intimate relationships with sales reps from various publishers than other larger online retailers do.

While the advent of mega online retailers and the e-book phenomenon have certainly affected the market of independent book retailers, these changes have sparked a permanent shift for the better in the brick and mortar book sellers who can learn to evolve with the market.

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