Independent bookstores are starting a new chapter

Photo by Advika Mukherjee '18 

Photo by Advika Mukherjee '18 

BY SARAH CAVAR '20

As a child, I was fortunate enough to live within a short drive of a quaint independent bookstore, not unlike the Odyssey Bookshop here in South Hadley. Like Odyssey, it was situated relatively near to similar attractions: a café in which one could find fair trade coffee and vegan scones baked with local, seasonal fruit, and a quirky clothing store filled with overpriced jewelry and maxi skirts. In short, it was as much of a tourist trap as could exist in a small town.

As a local who went to the bookshop simply for the well-read employees and the diverse book selection, the increasingly non-bookish atmosphere of the store became immensely frustrating. This frustration (shared by myself and the store’s employees) culminated with the closing of the store — despite its increasingly diverse selection, it had gone bankrupt. Watching that local bookstore change from a bookstore to a store-of-all-trades prior to its closing, I felt like I was supporting a sellout. The store had gone from 90 percent books and 10 percent miscellaneous book-related accessories, to 50 percent books and 50 percent kitschy items. 

When I first walked into Odyssey, I was overcome with that same sense of frustration — even this bookstore, next to what will be my home for the next four years, hadn’t escaped the kitschy “plague.” Despite having a higher percentage of books (particularly textbooks), Odyssey gave off a similar vibe as it tried to make itself appealing both to local book-lovers and non-book- loving visitors. I initially felt offended by my childhood bookstore’s transformation and by my impression of Odyssey. However, after thinking about a far more successful indie bookstore back home, I realized that it is rarely possible for a bookstore to sustain itself on book sales. BookBusiness, an online magazine, confirms this. Their very first tip for sustaining an indie bookstore is to “compete in a marketplace larger in size than the bookstore segment.” This is doubly true for independent bookstores with a smaller customer base and a limited online presence.

So, what did that other, successful bookstore back home do right? First of all, they’re online. This store announces events they attend, like the local gay pride celebration, on their website and quickly responds to Facebook comments inquiring about their book selection. They also buy back gently used books from customers, offering either cash or store credit in return. Additionally, this store offers attractions, such as animal petting times (they are located in a renovated barn) and a moderate selection of refreshments.

A refusal to patronize stores that sell trinkets alongside books will simply compel more of these increasingly rare and sacred spaces to close their doors. After all, even if it begins to sell other trinkets, it is still a bookstore, and it still needs customers to remain in business at all. My childhood bookstore did not update its stock in accordance with the changing times until too late. Someone likely ran it with an idealistic vision similar to mine. This idealism was perhaps the store’s downfall, along with its location adjacent to touristy attractions, into which a store catering only to local bibliophiles doesn’t quite fit. Odyssey is thriving on book and trinket sales, in part due to its convenient location, and in part due to its embrace of the products its customers demand. Located in a college town, Odyssey can rely to an extent on the sale of books: not only do students need textbooks, but its proximity to an academic population also helps ensure that it stays afloat. Not to mention, locals and tourists alike can buy Mount Holyoke gear, snacks and socially relevant bumper stickers.

Trinkets like mugs, socks and candy sold at Odyssey, and the similar items sold at my childhood store, are a necessary evil. Like eating Brussels sprouts, sometimes it is necessary to swallow some bitterness in order to enjoy a salutary result. And as these bookstores grow and change, I surely will as well. Maybe buying cute socks along with a stack of novels isn’t so bad after all.

Mount Holyoke News

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