I have been diligent in buying books locally this year, especially during the pandemic, which has been grueling on physical stores. But it’s a commitment that requires patience, if I’m sincere. When I recently ordered a few books from my local store that I knew were on their shelves, it took me about a week before I could pick them up from the curb. I’m not complaining, really; I was happy to wait for my books if that meant supporting a beloved business. But I was concerned that other people might not be so stoic about the delay and choose to read their next pandemic on their doorstep in two days, thanks to Amazon.
This is where Bookshop fits in. Launched last January, the online bookstore seeks to be the independent alternative to Amazon, with part of the profits going to small stores. Bookshop founder Andy Hunter is an independent literature guy himself, as publisher of Catapult and the Lit Hub website. He thought that taking back any market share from Amazon could be a boon for small bookstores. After all, Jeff Bezos’ giant accounts for around 70% of online book sales, and the pandemic has cemented its dominance as the world’s largest online retailer. Amazon made $ 75.5 billion in the last quarter, up 26% from the same period last year.
After almost a year of activity, Bookshop is doing remarkably well. Back in June, The New York Times reported that the fledgling retailer was set to surpass $ 40 million in sales in 2020 – a milestone Hunter didn’t expect to reach until 2022. According to the ticker on its homepage, Bookshop has siphoned off more $ 8 million to local bookstores. “There were a number of skeptics as to whether this would work,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, DC. Time. “The bookstore certainly performed better than anyone expected, because no one had predicted a pandemic.”
That’s right: The whole industry was shaken up by the pandemic, and Bookshop is probably lucky it was launched then. The small bookstores, on the other hand, are really, really struggling right now. According to the American Booksellers Association, an average bookstore goes bankrupt every week. While the media have described the emergence of Bookshop as a kind of David and Goliath parable, I instinctively felt skeptical whether an alternative to Amazon could be as good for indies as it claimed. In these difficult times, was it not more conscientious to order directly from the little guy, to hell with convenience?
I called one of my favorite stores in Brooklyn, Books Are Magic in Cobble Hill, to get their perspective. Colleen Callery, the store’s director of marketing and communications, said they’ve made a “nice piece of change” just by having an account with Bookshop. When buyers choose to buy through Books Are Magic on the Bookshop platform, the small business gets 30% of the list price – less than what it would earn from a direct sale, but without the hassle of fulfillment. Orders are shipped through Ingram, a major book distributor.
“Especially very early in the pandemic, when we couldn’t have more than two or three people in the store to ship or pack an order, we were taking a long time” to fill the orders, Callery said. Microphone. Having Bookshop to refer people to as a non-Amazon alternative has been extremely helpful. “It’s not exactly the same as if we could sell stuff, but I think for stores that couldn’t stay open, it probably made a big difference,” Callery said.
Besides convenience, another main reason people buy books on Amazon, of course, comes down to price. But Jeff Bezos isn’t in a position to get you as good a deal as you might expect. Out of curiosity, I compared the prices of five different books that I actually bought recently from Amazon, Bookshop, and my local independent retailer. The order from Amazon was only about $ 15 cheaper. (Bookstore and buy IRI cost about the same.) But as Callery pointed out, “spending that extra $ 15 can really make all the difference” for a small business.
Amazon lacks the curation and personality that makes bookstores so charming. “That’s why you get it so cheap, but it’s definitely missing a lot,” Callery said. But Bookshop has worked hard to recreate the experience of browsing a physical store, finding recommendations from real humans who love books. It’s not a replacement for those spaces, but at least as long as they’re shelved Bookshop offers a compelling alternative to Amazon. And as Callery said, “thinking about these structures and who we actually support is really good for all of us.”