Soft music playing, a young boy and girl laughing and chasing each other through the colorful aisles, an older couple sitting at the bench by the door sharing a classic, rows upon rows of novels of all different sizes and genres, the smell of paper, and the promise of a good story.
In the digital age of 2021, it may seem independent bookstores are in decline. According to emarketer.com, 22% of global retail sales will be attributed to e-commerce by 2023, almost doubling since 2019. After COVID-19, the growth and use of online shopping skyrocketed even more, jumping to $26.7 trillion. With price, speed and safety in consideration, online stores like Amazon may seem to be the best choice, putting independent businesses in danger. To book lovers however, the multinational conglomerate has nothing on the bookstore experience.
“We are a totally different beast,” said Avid Bookshop’s operations and events director Rachel Watkins. She confidently spoke about what Avid, a local bookstore in the Five Points neighborhood, brings to the table.
“We don’t compare to them [Amazon] at all,” Watkins said.
Amazon works off of an algorithm called item-item collaborative filtering. According to their website, “collaborative filtering is the most common way to do product recommendation online. It’s ‘collaborative’ because it predicts a given customer’s preferences on the basis of other customers.”
“I don’t want an algorithm deciding what I’m exposed to,” said Allison Hill from the American Booksellers Association. “Amazon’s algorithm is telling me books that somebody paid to get in front of me, or they’re recommending books based on what other people are reading, or what I’ve read in the past. But I really want to read outside my comfort zone and be exposed to new things.”
Amazon tries to increase sales with this profit-based algorithm. However, booksellers use their expertise to sell books. With personal interactions and conversations, booksellers are more likely to understand their customers and recommend a book they will really enjoy.
“I try to know what my customers like to read,” Trish Cummings from Wall of Books said. “If we get books in that we know they’ll be interested in, we take them off the shelf and hold them.”
Each Athens bookstore brings something to the community. Avid has a focus on using its privilege of influence to help others. They advocate for the marginalized through the books they choose to sell, the events they hold, and the charities they give back to.
On the other hand, Wall of Books is a used bookstore. Through their eco-friendly business model, their customers can come in and trade in their own books to get discounts to purchase from the store’s used books.
Locality plays a huge role and many Athens residents pride themselves on being able to shop locally and give back to their community.
The days of thinking Amazon was good for consumers are gone,” Hill said. “I think there’s a much deeper understanding of what’s at stake.
“When you shop at Amazon, very few of your dollars stay locally, whereas you stop at a local bookstore and those dollars give back to your community and their jobs,” Hill said.
“As a society, we have to stop thinking of these stores as just businesses,” Hill said. “You know that they’re playing this important role in terms of the fabric of our communities that is sometimes invisible, but it’s really meaningful.”
Post-lockdown, shopping locally will keep these independent businesses running and contribute to the community. The National Federation of Independent Business said that 76% of small business owners were affected in some way by COVID-19. Now that it is safer to reopen stores, these owners worked hard behind the scenes to make reopening the best and safest for their customers.
Both Avid and Wall of Books have no-contact pick-up programs in place. Cummings from Wall of Books said she “masks up” and places book orders in customers’ trunks to keep social distance. In a similar way, Watkins from Avid had a window perch and a “We miss you” sign to wave to customers as they picked up their orders during lockdown.
Started over 100 years ago and supporting more than 1,800 bookstores across the county, including Avid, the non-profit Independent Booksellers Association helps to support independent bookstores. They give aid by building e-commerce platforms for websites, advocating for small business issues and offering general education.
“I think at a point of the pandemic people started to realize that some of their favorite businesses were closing, whether it was a restaurant, or a coffee shop, or a bookstore, and people thought, ‘oh, wow, we really do vote with our dollars for the communities we want to live in and we’d better start supporting these stores,’” Hill said.
Besides supporting the community and getting personalized suggestions, these bookstores are places of comfort and learning. At Wall of Books, a group of men come nearly every day to sit in the store, read and converse. They come for the environment and to be surrounded by the things they love.
There are so many people who come in and say, ‘I was having a really bad day, and I just needed to come here and chill,’” Watkins said. “We have such value for our customers.”
With a sense of community and comfort, no longer are these stores just places to buy books. They are places to come relax, feel safe and have a positive experience.
“The bookstore experience can change your life,” Watkins said. “There is something very magical about walking into a store and knowing that you’re going to discover something new because one thing that independent booksellers are really good at is suggesting books.”
Erin Wasserman is a student in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
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