What comes to mind when you think about your local bookstore? My name is Al Morris, and for 22 years I was an independent bookstore owner. You know the independent book store, the friendly face of the owner as you walk in, the immediate sense of comfort you feel, the quiet and peaceful environment? The answer is most probably all of these and more. There is something magical about independent bookstores. They are a place to bond and connect with others with similar interests, and somewhere people can go to feel like a part of something important - in a world where we are often lost in the crowd.
So what is an independent bookstore exactly? “Indie” bookstores, as they are often referred to, are smaller stores usually owned by a family or a small group. Many of us remember the one in our own neighborhood, with the roaming cat and the owners who personally worked there and knew your name. Indies offer personalized service and are very supportive of new, local talent, often selling books of up and coming authors. They are introduced to the world in a way that would not be possible with a bigger chain store. Many now-famous writers got their big break with the support of an independent bookstore. The independent bookstore was a staple in every neighborhood, and up until the 1950s, almost every single bookstore in the United States was independent.
The Fall and Rise of the Indie Bookstore
That started to change, however, in the late 70s and 80s when mall-based bookstore chains, like Dalton and Waldenbooks, began emerging in large numbers. Other mall chains like Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Borders, and Costco, the membership-only warehouse, also began to take over and spread across the country like wildfire. In the early 1990s, Borders expanded from 21 stores to 256 in less than 10 years, and Barnes & Noble’s growth was even greater.
Remember the movie, You’ve Got Mail? This movie was a perfect example of what was happening with the smaller bookstore businesses. Aside from being a cute rom-com, it showed Meg Ryan’s small-town neighborhood bookstore being forced to close because of Tom Hank’s big chain bookstore (a la Borders) coming to town and running her out of business.
As we know, the movie had a happy ending, however, that wasn’t the case for many smaller stores through the years. It depicted the plight of many private bookstore owners across the US who struggled to compete with the “big guys”.
The attraction to these large bookstore chains was the variety they offered: cafes (Starbucks anyone), couches, cheaper books, and magazines – even music. Indie stores that were already operating with very thin margins could not offer any of these frills. Then in 1995, Amazon came on the scene and it got even worse, leading to closures of over 1,000 independent stores in the early naughts. And in 2007 came another big blow to the indies with the introduction of the Kindle, which signaled to many that the published book was on its way out.
By this point, one would have thought it was all over for the small independent bookstores…well low and behold it wasn’t. In 2009, the indies started to make a comeback. There were many reasons for this. Firstly, in one word... Amazon. Sure the independents got crushed by the mighty Amazon but interestingly enough, so did the big-box stores and chains. For instance, Borders closed all of its doors in 2011, and Barnes and Noble closed hundreds of brick-and-mortar locations after the failed launch of the Nook, a competitor to Amazon’s Kindle.
Secondly, sales of digital books started to decline while hardback sales began to increase. This is mostly because of the Gen Z and millennial generation. As much as they love being glued to their devices and posting on social media, they don’t want to read books on those devices. The boomers are actually the ones buying books because it's more convenient. And thirdly, e-books are more consistently expensive than predicted, many times even more than printed books.
The bottom line is that Barnes and Noble and Borders tried to go up against Amazon and did not succeed. Independent stores, of course, couldn't and can't compete with Amazon and luckily, they don’t need to. Most indie owners know that to stay relevant, they need to do 2 things: provide a good selection of old and new books and create a personalized and unique shopping experience. They have to offer something different. For example, the biggest category for indies is hardcover nonfiction, cookbooks, and illustrated children’s books, while Amazon does well with ebooks in the mass-market fiction genre. Indies do not have the inventory that Amazon does, and never will, they do offer a unique product.
Contrary to earlier days, real estate developers are now coming around to wanting independent bookstores in shopping malls and in city centers. They realized that these smaller stores are a sign of authenticity and should be part of the local fabric. Indies offer what Amazon and other big chains cannot: meeting the needs of their unique customer base. Because of this, indies are now going back into places where they were once replaced not that long ago. What a great plot twist.
Did you know that Amazon only sold books until 1998?
Experience the Independent Bookstore
There are so many reasons that make the independent bookstore experience one of a kind.
It is true that one doesn’t have to leave the house these days to buy a book or anything for that matter. It’s all conveniently online. Just one click of a button. Let’s not forget though that retailers online are not booksellers, they are specialists in e-commerce. Proprietors of bookstores were born with the passion and desire to read and sell books. They are people who find joy in finding the right book for each individual that comes through their door.
Contrary to popular belief, customers aren’t necessarily looking for a bargain when it comes to purchasing books. As mentioned above, purchasing online isn’t always the cheapest option. With shipping, buying a used book online can cost the same or only a fraction less than a new one. People want a positive and special experience. An adventure. Wandering around a uniquely decorated bookstore, walking through the narrow aisles can be mysterious and fun. And we cannot deny the pleasure of holding a book in your hands and experiencing the excitement of turning the pages.
When someone visits any retailer they are often seeking information, suggestions, or advice from knowledgeable employees. In an independent bookstore, you get just that. Independent bookstore workers have a wealth of knowledge and know their inventory inside and out. Contrary to machine-generated suggestions that one gets online, an indie bookseller can find the perfect book for someone with a personal touch. A happy customer is a loyal customer.
Independent bookstores are offering more variety these days. You don’t find just books anymore but a diverse selection of fun goods such as stationary, postcards, T-shirts, bags, and games. They are also a great place to find out what is going on in the community, including when celebrities are coming, and where kids can safely hang out at after school. Most importantly, purchasing a book from an independent bookstore is a boost to the local economy.
At the end of the day, a bookstore fosters community. It is not just a place to buy books but a safe place to come together and exchange conversations and ideas. Each independent bookstore has a unique personality, much like the customers it serves. They are not just buildings with shelves and books, they represent the heart of the people of the local community. Even after all the ups and downs of the industry throughout the last 30 to 50 years, independent bookstores remain vital fixtures in their communities and will continue to be relevant for years to come.
Along with the books, and the pictures and images in them, I likewise find brochures extremely helpful and typically have them at my bedside to take a look at before retiring. Almost everyone discusses flowers and plants when they talk about garden style. The style you achieve with herbaceous plants needs to be constantly watched, supported and altered, whereas if you choose trees as the foundation of a garden, you can reduce maintenance. I believe it is magic, really, that in England you can grow such numerous types of plants and shrubs. It doesn't matter if you're a complete amateur, a budding enthusiast or a water gardening / fountains / water feature / koi pond landscape professional I know you'll find lots of new ideas to create the garden of your dreams.
Getting in Touch with Nature
In some way, in nations where the environment isn't so great [for gardening], I believe individuals are not as relaxed and in tune with nature. The Hillier Handbook of Trees and Shrubs includes comprehensive descriptions of over 9,000 plants, covering a vast array of trees, shrubs, climbers, conifers, and bamboos. And yes, I utilize all of it, along with other plant publications like David Austin's Roses. The last book I read, "Gardens From the Air", is a fantastic collection of aerial pictures. I was entertained to see someone planted a tree in the shape of a foot - that sort of thing. This kind of thing has actually ended up being a sort of style, however, it has actually been going on for rather a very long time.
The Very Best Gardening Books
Snuggle into your coziest sofa for a couple of hours of leisurely reading this weekend, top off your mug and slip on your fuzziest slippers. The cutting garden at Tennessee Station is filled with both perennials and annuals; it was developed by landscape designer Mary Plammer-Dargan. Beyond it is a recently planted apple orchard and, nestled at the edge of the woods, an author's cottage. Another of his favorites is not technically a book at all: The visitor's guide to Wethersfield, the massize, nation-sized estate of Chauncey Stillman in upstate New York city. Among the other books, such as The Lost Garden by Helen Humphries, a novel about a female who "discovers herself on a gorgeous estate in Devon, England, there to assist in planting the fields to grow crops for the war effort, however, she wanders around the old gardens and marvels at who created them, who tended them, what their lives resembled, what occurred to them" ... A highly recommended, fascinating read.
English Gardens... Untamed?
William Collinson famously wrote: "I like the untamed/tamed sensation of English gardens" Following the same theme, Will Cooper, the Chief Creative Officer at style and advancement powerhouse Ash New York City, states "The English Nation Home Garden" by George Plumpter is one that I like that "catches that spirit". Other recommended books by independent publishers include: Planting: A Brand-new Point Of View, By Piet Oudolf & Noel Kingsbury Paradise and Plenty: A Rothschild Household Garden, by Mary Keen Crockett's Success Garden Paperback, (April, 1977), by James Underwood Crockett (A traditional!) The terraced gardens at Vacation home Silvio Pellico, near Moncalieri, Italy, which Russell Page finished in the 1950s. Image thanks to Royal Horticultural Society. Lastly, we asked Interiors & Garden Editor, Alison Levasseur, to weigh in too. If you can't be outside this weekend, hands in the dirt, get a brand-new gardening book to get motivated for your next venture!