For Independent Bookstores and Record Shops, Creativity is Key

PLAY OF THE LAND

Borders. Virgin Megastore. Tower Records. The last decade has seen numerous media retail giants fall victim to skyrocketing rents, the proliferation of digital media and evolving consumer habits.

So does that mean the end is near for brick-and-mortar stores in the business of selling books and music? No, but survival will take an extra dose of creativity, says Stephen Godfroy, co-president of the London- and Brooklyn-based Rough Trade.

The tougher retail environment has created a unique opportunity for indie stores. According to Nielsen’s 2014 year-end ratings, chain and mass merchant music stores saw 20 percent drops in physical album sales, while independent stores had only a 0.5 percent drop. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent booksellers actually rose 20 percent from 2009 through 2014.

“The death of bookstores may have been foretold, but we’re still kicking,” says Steve Salardino, manager at Skylight Books in Los Angeles.

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The Brompton Café at Rough Trade in Brooklyn.

An Opportunity for Indies in Curation

Of course, the lifeline is still a bit tenuous, as many consumers are increasingly dependent on leading online retailers such as Amazon and Spotify—not to mention free online sources—for literature and music. This has been a huge point of contention for large brick-and-mortar retailers that rely on adding value solely through slight price discounts and convenience. However, indie stores like Rough Trade and Skylight have been able to stand out by providing their customers with unique experiences.

“Good brick-and-mortar music stores are in essence places of congregation for likeminded ‘curious-of-mind’ individuals of all ages and all tastes,” says Godfroy. “The purchase element is a minor fraction of the experience. Conversation, stimulation, discovery, congregation, celebration, intimate live experiences—they’re all ingredients that make a good music store experience.”

“Conversation, stimulation, discovery, congregation, celebration, intimate live experiences—they’re all ingredients that make a good music store experience.”

Rough Trade has created this atmosphere by offering more than just CDs and records. The Brooklyn location has a full live-music club, a booth to try out electric guitar pedals, a space to play table tennis and a coffee bar. Rough Trade, which has had its financial ups and downs since opening in 1978, has also placed an emphasis on its editorial role.

“We adopt as much curation to our overall store experience as we do with the music we choose to sell, whether it be the coffee we serve or what headphones we decide to endorse,” says Godfroy. “In everything we do, we’re defined as much by what we exclude as by what we decide to include. Over time, this quality control engenders gratitude, trust and respect from suppliers and customers alike.”

Indie bookstores can also create an experience that’s hard to duplicate online.

“We can know our community and make changes to our inventory easily as a result of that,” says Katie Orphan, general manager of The Last Bookstore, in Los Angeles. “We plan and buy for our store knowing what the people who shop here are interested in.”

Indie bookstores have also been successful in building a fan base by hosting readings from national and local authors, having in-store concerts and subletting parts of their space to other local businesses. It’s all done with the aim of building a strong community.

“Many of the people who visit our store look forward to it as an experience, not just as a place to run the errand of buying a book,” says Orphan. “People want to come here and spend time in our space. That’s a valuable part of how we draw in customers.”

Rising Above Rents

There’s also a practical reason for broadening a store’s offerings: a greater chance for profit. One of the biggest reasons that businesses struggle is due to the rising cost of rent. Salardino notes that real estate prices have increased much more rapidly than pay rates and salaries, and with books having a small profit margin, it can be difficult to keep up.

“Increasing rents means less money can go to increasing wages and investing in growth as well,” he says. “And in this economy, a business needs to continuously grow or it will not be able to keep up.”

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Jessica Hopper discusses her book “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” at Skylight Books in May 2015.

Today, many bookstores serve up a wide assortment of offerings. However, “the margin for error has become much smaller,” says Salardino. “Bookstores can’t just be okay at these things and skate by. They have to excel.”

The issue is similar for recorded music, where the retail margin is typically less than in other sectors such as fashion. As a result, Godfroy says it makes sense for a store like Rough Trade to widen its offerings with complementary streams of revenue that have greater margins, such as coffee and beer.

“The consumer climate is receptive to a more holistic interpretation of what a record store can and should be,” he says.

Making the In-Person Experience Matter

The “more is more” philosophy of business can work well, but only if each component falls in line with the store’s overarching purpose.

As our gadgets pull us in, indie shops could be the place to get away and connect with people.

“There has to be a common thread that weaves each element together,” says Godfroy. “This thread could be championing self-expression and do-it-yourself creativity or simply being a definitive independent brand.”

The nature of business is changing in a big way, and the continued development of digital will shape the future. But as our gadgets pull us in, indie shops could be the place to get away and connect with people.

“I envision that bookstores will become even more of event and gathering places,” says Salardino. “They will be along the lines of little art colonies.”

“I am a hopeful cynic when it comes to the future of bookstores,” he adds. “Understanding and encouraging the uniqueness of what happens when [someone] walks into one is what I see helping them survive.”

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