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How independent bookstores reclaim their space in the world of Amazon

Published December 10, 2020

When Amazon burst onto the scene in 1995, it sold only books, claiming to be “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore.” The advent of Amazon was thought to have been a death sentence for your friendly neighborhood bookshop. But it wasn’t. Some indie shops have even thrived in the digital age. Bookselling is vital to Amazon’s legacy, but independent bookstores won’t go down without a fight.

Neighborhood shops have carved out a new space for themselves by leaning into strengths the international giant can never replicate: closeness, a sense of community and their own unique form of e-commerce. To independent bookstores, community is everything—even, and especially, after the pandemic shuttered storefronts. Here, we’ll dig deeper into how indie shops have managed to keep customer connections strong throughout Amazon’s digital era.

Independent bookstores set themselves apart

Indie bookstores have never had an issue distinguishing themselves from the big-box giant—and that’s what will keep them alive. Especially when it comes to conscious consumers, independent bookstores and Amazon Books bring totally different value to the market.

Amazon consumers may be able to get books on demand, but patrons of indie bookstores shop for community.

In 2016, when Ben Nockels co-opened Commonplace Books Oklahoma City and, subsequently, Commonplace Books Edmond, Amazon was never factored in as a competitor. “The only thing Amazon and I have in common is that we both happen to sell books,” Nockels said.

They got a lot of questions about how to compete in the digital age, and Nockels claimed, “It’s just the wrong question.” This mindset can be true for any local business whose mission is often about connection over competition. And for indie bookstores, the mission is definitely not to become the “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore.”

Nockels welcomes a customer into Commonplace Oklahoma City, whose slogan is “A Common love for books and people.” (Source)

3 ways independent bookstores distinguish themselves

Since the first independent bookstoreMoravian Book Shop—opened in Pennsylvania in 1745 (yes, it’s still open!), indie shops have been a place for patrons to connect with a unique selection, a cozy experience and a community of their own.

Indie bookstores offer a more curated selection.

Amazon’s endlessly stocked virtual shelves haven’t been quite the doomsday bringer they seemed to be—because selection was never the draw for local bookstores to begin with. Independent bookstores can offer a more curated, handpicked assortment of books that can grow and change with trends, current events and requests from its patrons.

Indie bookstores provide a human-centered experience.

Recent research by A.T. Kearney, cited on CNBC, found that “81% percent of Gen Z respondents said they prefer to purchase in stores, and 73% said they like to discover new products in stores.” That stat may not be a direct look into a local store’s experience, but Generation Z values authenticity more than any other generation, giving small business a leg up against big-box retailers.

"81% percent of Gen Z respondents said they prefer to purchase in stores, and 73% said they like to discover new products in stores".

Indie bookstores foster community.

“Independent and local businesses thrive because people love the lifestyle of it. It’s a human exchange,” Nockels said. Once the pandemic hit and Commonplace’s doors closed temporarily, they swiftly moved some of their commerce online and offered delivery and pickup options. But as soon as the doors opened again, in-store sales at both of Commonplace’s locations went right back up. Younger generations, especially, research online before they make an in-store purchase. Offering both will serve small communities well.

Regardless of a shopper’s affinity for the in-store experience, e-commerce is a sure way forward for all retailers, not just bookstores. Amazon may already (and in some cases, always) have the upper hand online, but wants to capture a slice of it—and then give it back. wants to connect online shoppers with local shops, and it’s not not working

New kid on the block wants you to know that you don’t have to buy books “the old-fashioned way” to support independent shops. And so far, it’s working. Since the site’s beta launch in January, they’ve already given close to $8 million back to local bookstores.

For a local store owner, e-commerce can feel like a whole new world. is the only one doing what it does—it helps independent bookstores reclaim a slice of the market by giving them an online platform, without the bookstore itself having to pivot entirely to digital. (At NCR VOYIX, we call that connection between physical operation and its digital presence bridging the gap.)’s mission is to “financially support local, independent bookstores.” They achieve that mission in a few ways, namely by donating more than 75% of its profit margins to “stores, publications, authors and others who make up the thriving, inspirational culture around books.” Similar to the idea that indie bookstores aren’t in direct competition with Amazon Books, doesn’t want to replace Amazon. It wants to do better.’s pillar is connection. It wants to connect online shoppers to independent book stores and give back to those stores accordingly. It demonstrates that value by not only giving bookstores their profits back but also giving to all of the other voices that contribute to a book’s (and a bookstore’s) success. According to Forbes, “Bookshop’s 10% commission for affiliate publications is roughly twice Amazon’s 4.5% affiliate commission.” A higher commission means better payback for authors, publishers and publications when they share a link. And more Bookshop traffic means more giveback to the stores themselves.

Independent bookstores rally their customers

Indie shops refused to get #BoxedOut. A New York Times article cited the American Booksellers Association (ABA) in stating that “more than one independent bookstore has closed each week since the pandemic began.” Although businesses closing is not just a bookstore narrative but also a small-business narrative, some independent bookstores are fighting back by participating in ABA’s “Don’t Box Out Bookstores” campaign.

Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore, pictured, is just one of New York’s campaign participants.(Source)

ABA launched “Don’t Box Out Bookstores” in October 2020. The campaign’s launch coincided with Amazon Prime Day, signaling a direct message to consumers: they should buy their books at indies and not on Amazon. The campaign is an attempt at reclaiming the bookstore experience, especially after the pandemic moved much of their business online (and, in many cases, to Amazon.) In an interview with ABC, ABA CEO Allison Hill said, “We're hoping that people will understand the juxtaposition and support their local stores.”

Independent bookstores use e-commerce to connect with their community

The ability to offer a human experience has never been truer or more important for independent bookstores. And when COVID-19 shuttered physical doors, many indie shops moved online—not to gain new customers, but to keep connecting with their existing ones.

The online presence of the Oklahoma bookstore Commonplace was, like other small businesses, bolstered by COVID-19. After it became clear that the pandemic would be a winding road for small businesses, Commonplace launched an online presence, with connection at its heart. “I didn’t look for a way to sell books, I looked for a way that we could connect with our community in a way that we connected with them every day prior,” Nockels said. Independent bookstores are known for being a “home away from home” for their patrons, so an online presence should reflect that with livestream readings and increased social media updates.

Even when bookstores can fully reenter the world of physical experiences, digital adoption is key. Seventy-five percent of global consumers “said they would be interested in using an app on their phone to research a product before a purchase is made in-store,” according to Wirecard. That doesn’t mean each bookstore needs its own app; simply directing a customer to a store’s website or social media channels will do. Retailers can even take advantage of QR codes to direct customers to a certain book review, for example.

Independent bookstores use e-commerce to connect with their community

For patrons looking to grab the latest bestseller, Amazon may be the answer. For those looking for community, an indie bookstore will always win. It isn’t a story of reinvention—it’s a story of reclamation. Independent bookstores are simply holding their stake in a place that was never Amazon’s to begin with.

“There’s nothing new about modern advancements,” Nockels said. “The printing press was once the ‘big bad wolf,’ and books have stood the test of time.” To him, Amazon isn’t the big bad wolf; it’s just one wolf in the ongoing forest of digital innovation. "The printed word is powerful, and a technological advancement cannot replace it."

In an interview with The Washington Post, Justin Moore, general manager at Uncle Bobbie’s, in Philadelphia, said, “You can always get the books cheaper on Amazon, faster on Amazon. Customers are going out of their way to not only purchase books from independent bookstores themselves, but to encourage their friends and colleagues to do it as well. It’s been very much a community-led initiative,” further proving that indie shops are where consumers go for more than just a book.

A differentiated retail experience includes extending your customer’s experience outside of your physical store—and the products you sell. When you visit an indie bookstore, the interaction isn’t transactional. For many, it’s transformational. You can get to know the shop dog, snag a front-row seat at a poetry slam and meet your favorite author at an impromptu pop-up. Indie bookstores can offer a safe space for LGBTQ youth and a go-to spot for book clubs to meet.

Independent bookstores are an escape, even online—and that customer-first mindset is something we can get behind.

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