To the New York Times: Indie Bookstores Are on the Rise

Posted By: Carrie Obry

To David Streitfeld, upon reading his article “Bookstore Chains, Long in Decline, Are Undergoing a Final Shakeout” in the technology section of the New York Times
Mr. Streitfeld,
To riff on your clever Hemingway quote, there are two ways your recent article about the bookselling industry frustrated me—at first, just a little bit, and after a few more readings, a whole lot.

You set out to write about the death of bookstore chains like Book World, but you roped independent bookstores into your obituary, and ended up with a disingenuous mash-up that mangled the facts. 

The fate of Book World is not the fate of independent bookstores, which are on the rise. The steady comeback of independent bookstores is so well-reported, I can’t imagine an award-winning journalist such as yourself could have missed it. 

Between 2009 and 2015, the American Booksellers Association reported a 35 percent growth in the number of independent bookstores, from 1,651 to 2,227. 
It’s simply incorrect to say “bookstores are undergoing a final shakeout,” and your quotes from the mouths of jobless Book World staff about the death of “bookstores” are terribly misleading. You even visited a few Book World stores during the chain’s liquidation sale and reported that traffic was slow! That’s like showing up late to a party and complaining that the wine bottles are empty.

You even used a thriving independent bookseller to back up your claims. Daniel Goldin, one of the most innovative and nimble booksellers in the country, indeed has an independent bookstore so rooted in his community he can turn on a dime. Boswell Book Company is the type of successful bookstore whose numbers are increasing.
I suppose history will be right there with you, saying Book World was the victim of the rise of e-commerce and the convenience of buying books online, and that their locations in struggling shopping malls were the anchor that drew them under. But like your article, these statements are only partially true. Much more has to be said about Book World's sales model to fully understand what brought it down.
I talked with Mark Dupont, Book World’s senior vice president and one of my colleagues. He says, “Chains are difficult to maintain because everything happens from the top down. You can’t cultivate the local community and clientele the same way you can with a single store who has a committed owner and is passionate about their business.”
All of this reminds me of another famous passage from Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”
Changes in the marketplace will kill those too inflexible to adapt. But those who do, like savvy independent booksellers, come out stronger and better than ever. Now that’s a story I want to read.

Carrie Obry
Executive Director
​Midwest Independent Booksellers Association