Hundreds of independent booksellers gathered the last week in January in Baltimore, Maryland, for the American Booksellers Association’s 15th annual Winter Institute, a four-day educational and networking event for booksellers, authors, and publishers from around the world. (Some traveled from as far as the Netherlands, Colombia, Guatemala, and New Zealand to attend.)
The first breakfast keynote presentation featured Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. Raffaelli called himself “an anthropologist for business” because he examines how industries, organizations, and business leaders reinvent themselves in the face of radical technological change. “In the context of retail,” Raffaelli said, “seismic shifts are affecting the way consumers engage with online, big box, and local retailers.” After years of research of indie bookstores, Raffaelli concluded, “Independent bookstores provide a story of hope for community-led businesses.”
For a quick recap of our bookselling industry: In 1990, the end of independent bookstores was predicted, and booksellers continued to struggle through the 2000s. But from 2009 to 2018, there was almost a fifty percent growth in American Bookseller Association member stores in certain areas. Raffaelli tracked the indie resurgence from 2010 onward to see exactly how bookstores were able to bounce back. He conducted a voluminous number of interviews and focus groups and visited bookstores across the country, as his team analyzed nearly 1,000 newspaper and trade-published articles about independent bookselling. A white paper with his full findings was distributed at the keynote and is also available online.
“The challenge for reinvention, particularly in the retail space, is that it requires established organizations to respond to multiple shocks that impact and affect the core business, the identity, the capabilities, and the cultural values of organizations,” Raffaelli discovered. He noted some key findings that he believes are what have supported the growth of the indie seller:
● Community. This centers on the shared value that shopping local is something to be preserved and protected, and it has a national movement expressed online and in-store to customers.
● Curation. Raffaelli noted that booksellers were using this term well before it became ubiquitous in retail. He called hand-selling an art that overcomes the algorithms that lack human connection. He referenced the joy it brings customers.
● Convening. Bookstores have become that third place, a cornerstone of communities, offering an escape from digital fatigue. At Gramercy, we’ve become a gathering place for readers in central Ohio, offering eight diverse book-related events every month that stimulate connection, conversation, and engagement. As practiced at our annual conferences, booksellers also engage with each other in the industry, sharing our best practices to make the industry stronger as a whole.
As we look to the next decade, Raffaelli reminded booksellers to continue to provide customers with a unique and human experience every day, while bridging the physical and digital worlds of our future. At Gramercy Books, that is exactly what we plan to do!
Thank you for your loyal support!
Written by Linda Kass
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. It won a Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction from the Independent Publisher Award Program and was a 2016 Foreword INDIES Award Finalist. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.