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Indie bookstores find way to thrive despite you-know-who

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The website for a Bethany Beach bookshop refers to Amazon as “that site that shall not be named.”

The conventional wisdom is independent booksellers can’t compete with the world’s largest online retailer with its discounted deals and next-day delivery. The story has a plot twist though.

MeJah Books owner Emlyn De Gannes. | Photo by Ron Dubick

Everyone from the owner of small Claymont bookshop to the new CEO of Barnes & Noble have plans to woo readers to Delaware’s brick-and-mortar bookstores this holiday season.

Indie bookstores are on the rise. Their number has grown a startling 53% since 2009, and sales were up 5% last year, according to the American Booksellers Association. Younger customers are taking “shelfies” of themselves with their favorite books. The Young Adult category is booming with award-winning titles like “The Hate You Give.” Vacationers at a Rehoboth Beach bookshop tell staffers that they routinely hit the bookstore before they hit the beaches.

James Daunt, Barnes & Noble’s new CEO, ran his own Daunt Books in England and then revived the venerable Waterstones chain there when it was on the ropes. He thinks he knows why Amazon isn’t kicking indie stores to the curb: “If a bookstore is interesting and engaging and just a real pleasure to be within, and the service matches, then choosing a book in a bookstore is just a whole lot more fun than getting it in your post box.”

His plans for Barnes & Noble’s Delaware stores include spending money to freshen the locations, hiring more full-time employees, letting staff match the books to the locales, and keeping the popular book events, book groups and bookstore cafes.

“Independent bookstores are thriving in the U.S.; Barnes and Noble is not,” Daunt said. “The simple reason for that is the bookstores haven’t been particularly good for a long time, and I hope that’s what we’re changing. We’re giving the individual bookstore teams the freedom to curate their own individual stores
and chose their own presentations. The secret is in the people.”

Daunt said he had “a full decade of peace before Mr. Bezos opened shop,” so he’s always considered Jeff Bezos’ Amazon “just a part of the ecosystem of books.”

“If you’re a good enough bookseller, then your bookstore has nothing to fear from Amazon,” he said.

Emlyn DeGannes just moved her 21-year-old MeJah Books to a larger location next to EZ Loans in Holly Oak. DeGannes, who labels herself a social entrepreneur, has responded to community needs, including a book outreach to area prisons.

She hosts two or three events a week ““ children’s stories, poetry readings, jazz presentations and community events.

She knows Amazon can undersell her: “Their retail price is sometimes my cost. When people buy here, that’s when you know you have customers who are dedicated to you because you’ve been in the community a long time.”

Occasionally, she said, she uses Amazon to her advantage: “There are some times when my customer might need a book the next day. Guess what? Amazon is there for me.”

Rehoboth Beach-based Browseabout Books owner Susan Kehoe. | Photo by Eric Crossan

Susan Kehoe, who manages Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, hosts more than 150 events annually, from story times to luncheons with bestselling authors.

Browseabout offers free gift wrap and keeps the shelves completely stocked during the holidays, although it’s not prime season at the beach.

“When I train new staff, I tell them almost everything we have in the store people can buy cheaper online and have it delivered to their door, but they come here because we’re a fun place to shop,” she said.

Kehoe sees people pulling out their phones scanning covers occasionally, possibly using the Amazon app to compare prices or order online, but she doesn’t let it faze her. “There’s not much you can do about it. It’s just sort of a necessary evil at this stage of the game,” she said.

“Yes, you can get that on Amazon, but Amazon doesn’t pay taxes. Amazon doesn’t support local charities. They don’t provide jobs to your friends and neighbors.”

Customers pick up on the local link. Small Business Saturday is the busiest single day of the year at Browseabout, with Black Friday coming in second.

Ditto for MeJah Books in Claymont. And Amanda Hudson, manager of Bethany Beach Books, said each successive Small Business Saturday is bigger and more successful than the last.

The holiday season that officially starts on Black Friday is make-or-break for bookstores.

Daunt said some Barnes & Noble stores do as much as 30% of their sales during the holidays.

More important, bookstores often make 100% of their profit during the holidays, Daunt said.

“For 11 months of the year, you don’t turn a dime, and then you make it all at the holidays,” he said. 

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