There was a markedly optimistic tone at this year’s fall regional conferences and trade shows, held from September 20 to October 12 in airport hotels and conference centers from the Big Easy to Portland, Ore., and Providence, R.I. That optimism dovetails with statistics indicating that independent booksellers are coming back. For the past three years, the American Booksellers Association has reported modest but steady growth in membership, with a total of 1,632 member stores in May and nearly 2,000 locations. At the New England conference, ABA spokesman Dan Cullen reported that 2012 unit sales for indies were up almost 8% over 2011, and while the year-over-year sales increase in 2013 won’t be as large, due to the lack of blockbusters to compare with the Hunger Games and Fifty Shades, stores are holding their own. “This year we’re holding onto almost all these gains; that’s begun to change the narrative,” Cullen said. At the close of the regionals, which marks the start of the final push for the fourth quarter, ABA CEO Oren Teicher wrote in an open letter to booksellers, “I strongly believe that we have barely scratched the surface of what can be achieved.”
While the weather, particularly in Colorado, and the government shutdown have played havoc with many bookstores, most show attendees remained upbeat. In part that’s because of higher sales, a clear indication that print books, still the core of indies’ business, are not fading away anytime soon. At the same time, booksellers who began their careers in the 1970s and ’80s and are hoping to retire soon needed only to look around the show floor to see that it’s not only possible to sell their businesses, but that such transitions can lead to growth. Just before the New Atlantic conference, Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham, who bought Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., in 2011, announced that they may add a second location; and during the show, they installed a new inventory system. There were also a number of attendees at the events who are considering opening new stores, as well as booksellers who have recently opened new stores, like Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle and the Book Bar in Denver.
On the West Coast, where Northern California Independent Booksellers Association executive director Hut Landon presented updates on next year’s California Bookstore Day (May 3), which is intended to move the needle on bookstore sales, there was a renewed sense of the power of independents. As Ruth Liebmann, v-p, director of account marketing, Random House, noted at a big ideas panel at the New Atlantic conference: “Even though it’s an unsettling time, it’s a huge opportunity for the indies. Borders has closed, everybody is looking at the independents. You have a moment.” —Judith Rosen, with reporting by Claire Kirch, Wendy Werris, Paige Crutcher, and Kristianne Huntsberger