Independent booksellers and librarians, representatives from traditionally print-based institutions, spoke on two different panels at the Digital Book World conference in New York City on Wednesday about the future of local shops and libraries, answering two key questions: Why are we still here, and how do we stay here?
“There’s been a very visible recommitment to buying locally and supporting their local bookstores,” said Bradley Graham of Washington D.C.'s Politics and Prose at the Future of Bookstores panel. “There’s an appreciation among many customers about the comparative advantages over Amazon.”
To capitalize on the advantages offered by a bricks-and-mortar outlets, and to “reinforce Politics and Prose’s role as a community gathering place,” Graham has beefed up his sideline offerings. The store holds literary classes, foreign trips and local outings, and trivia nights, and also has acquired a liquor license so it can sell beer and wine at its many author talks.
“Independent owners and managers while notoriously idiosyncratic, they’re tremendously entrepreneurial,” added Graham, a former journalist who has owned Politics and Prose since 2011.
In fact, several of the panelists articulated goals of becoming more than just sellers of books, but rather, a place that unifies a community as a spot for gathering and discussion.
“We are the community, is what it comes down to,” said Margot Sage-El, owner of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J. “Books are an incredibly personal and intimate object...it’s still a people oriented product. It’s not retail.”
As a suburban store, Watchung is “very child oriented” in its programming, but also offers events for adult customers, like music evenings in the summer. “It’s all around books,” added Sage-EL. “People want to have a place to connect with each other. Increasingly more so in this age of technology.”
“The future of bookselling...is about humanity,” agreed Roxanne Coady, CEO of RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn. “Humanity likes to congregate. To be in touch.”
Sarah McNally of McNally Jackson in New York City said that she is seeking out ways to leverage the brand she has cultivated, one that is “known for intellectuals and curation.” In 2013, she opened up Good for the Study around the corner from her bookstore in the Manhattan neighborhood of Nolita, which sells stationery, writing implements, and vintage furniture. While she is opening a store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Jackson did remark that the rent for her existing store will likely be unsustainable in roughly six years. “Retail is a rent story,” she said. “Someone in [New York] needs to take a hand and educate consumers about what they’re doing when they’re buying [at] chains.”
With the shift to electronic lending freeing up the space once occupied by rows of shelving for physical books, the panelists at the Future of Libraries panel also reflected on different ways in which libraries are becoming even greater places of community gathering. At the White Plains Public Library, director Brian Kenney recently opened a teen library, which includes a digital media lab, a gaming area, and a lounge.
“As we become more community engaged, we are beginning to differentiate ourselves more, and we’re reliant upon responding to...our community and what [its] needs are,” said Kenney.
Jamie Watson, collection development coordinator at the Baltimore Public Library, extends community outreach in a number of ways — the library has secured a partnership with the local office of workforce development, creating space where job seekers can access resources to search for open positions fill out online resumes. And as moderator and senior editor at Library Journal Meredith Schwartz called out, other libraries across the country are transforming their floorplans, some have opened up test kitchens for demonstrations related to cookbooks in their collections, and most are consistently “redefining themselves as more than just buildings full of books.”
While much of the conversation revolved around the changing function of local libraries, the panelists also emphasized a major point when it comes to the move to digital — the e-book, like hardcover, paperback, or audio, is just another format in a menu of options. “A reader’s model is by any means necessary,” said Kenney, whose library has a circulation of roughly 800,000, half of the circulation is devoted to media, and of the 400,000 circulation in books, 10% are e-books.
According to a recent user survey conducted by the New York Public Library, over 70% of its online users indicate that they use the library to try out a new genre or discover a new writer. Over half of these users are also engaged in other online social book communities, like Goodreads. “These are people who travel in multiple channels,” said Christopher Platt, director of BookOps at the NYPL.
As curating a library becomes more challenging, and more interesting, Platt believes that reaching these dynamic readers is achieved by syncing with others in community and industry. “Think of it as an opportunity to partner,” said Platt. “[For] building and promoting a more literate society...We have a long way to go, and we can’t do it alone.”