May 19, 2017
What will the new era of bookselling look like: An open letter
by Christine Onorati
Dear readers, writers, book lovers, and book buyers,
I’ve run WORD bookstore in Brooklyn since 2007 (and a small indie on Long Island for six years before that). For most of that time, I’ve felt completely secure in the knowledge that, while I’d never become rich from this career, I was doing something important and meaningful while participating in a somewhat profitable retail exchange. I like retail. My father ran stationery stores for most of my life and I like the juggling of the various parts to make it all work. Profitable bookstores in the US can hope to make between two and five percent after expenses. This means that we are basically working tirelessly to stay afloat and for very little money, and don’t have much room for reinvesting in our businesses, expanding or bringing on more staff, improving our infrastructure, etc.
I believe that we are at a crossroads in our industry, and, for the first time, I’m genuinely worried for our future. I think that we need to start brainstorming new business models and figuring out how to make the retail equation work in our favor so that we can stay afloat. Many of us will not make it; Amazon bookstores, online competition, skyrocketing rents, increased minimum wage, lack of young booksellers who choose this industry as a viable career — I could go on and on. These obstacles will put many of us out of business. It’s inevitable. Also, I’m worried about the financial viability of my business: will all these years of hard work eventually pay off when I want to retire? Who can afford to take on the debt of buying an existing bookstore when the margins are so slim in this business as it is? Can the young career booksellers who want to start their own bookstores or purchase existing ones one day afford to do so in this stifling financial environment? These questions plague me.
But is this doom-and-gloom outlook making me cower in fear and hide? No. Quite to the contrary, I’m constantly looking at new ways to sell books. I’m expanding my footprint in Brooklyn. I’m joining the board of the American Booksellers Association. I’m sending staff to all corners of New York and New Jersey to sell books and partner with new entities to make my WORD bookstores’ brand more visible and viable. I’m writing this personal letter to reassert my values as a business owner and reconfirm our mission. Because we aren’t just selling widgets. We are helping foster important dialogue about where we are in the world and how we got here. Providing books that help reinforce diversity and reminding ourselves that marginalized voices need an outlet. When I asked my three senior staffers to articulate the values they saw at the core of our mission as WORD, they all chose “meaningful work.” That’s not just a coincidence. That shows that we are doing something we feel strongly about, and it’s more important than ever that we continue this work before the online giants and mass merchandisers limit the choices of what’s being published more and more until we have no choice and no voice left.
Someone recently equated what I do to farm-to-table dining, and at first I didn’t see the connection. A book is a book, there is no quality difference that I can tout. I think that comparison works only when you look at the chain of how we get that final product. Meaning: you can buy a cheap book on Amazon or at Walmart, sure. But if everyone is doing that, what’s left? Where does that chain include the knowledgeable indie booksellers who put the right books in customers’ hands, or the booksellers who champion authors who don’t have high Amazon rankings and therefore don’t get a coveted face-out location next to the blenders and Jenny McCarthy books? Or what about the displays in our stores for Black Lives Matter or our poetry recommendations or our knowledge of kids’ books featuring brown characters? Where will those live in this new world? The answer is that they won’t: there will be no room for this kind of personalized book service. And as a result, what’s being published will inevitably change. THIS matters to me. This makes the “chain” more important than ever, more important than the end product.
I am tired of shaking my fist at the entities who are looking to destroy this chain. Making people feel guilty when they don’t shop local doesn’t work anymore. I want to stop trying to convince people that shopping at my store is not only a more pleasant experience, but also a more beneficial one to the process of book publishing. So I’m going to focus on the people who have supported us throughout the years, who come to my stores to talk to other book lovers, talk to my wildly intelligent and knowledgeable staff, feel comfort that they are in a place where people like the same things they do. Those who take chances on the books they might not know anything about but whose descriptions on a staff pick display they love, or those who attend events and preorder signed copies and who tweet about the great afternoon they spent in one of my stores. I want to figure out how, together, we can do more great things and how their support will allow us at WORD, and like-minded independent booksellers, to continue to expand our horizons and bring the community what it wants and needs. We have some ideas in mind and we’ll be rolling them out in the coming months. We’re talking about paid memberships, loyalty programs, focused programming, live streams.
Have thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you ([email protected]), hear your ideas on everything I just rambled about and anything you think could make us stronger and better and more surefooted on the obviously treacherous ground of this industry. Let’s discuss how to shake things up. I think we all need it.
All my best, and thank you for 10+ years of supporting WORD,
Christine Onorati is the owner of WORD bookstores, with locations in Brooklyn and Jersey City. Before opening WORD in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2007, she worked in publishing and ran a small new and used bookshop on Long Island.