In the Spotlight

News & Features
A Book-selling Jungle
By Jon Gordon
April 20, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

The 1990s have been tough for independent bookstores. They've lost customers to big chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. The newest threat is and other Internet superstores, but independent booksellers are starting to fight back.

Forrester Research, a top computer and Internet market-research firm, says Americans will buy more than a billion dollars worth of books on the Internet in 1999, double last year's total. Forrester predicts 18 percent of all books sold will be sold on the Internet by 2003.

The Hungry Mind is a favorite hangout for the Twin Cities literary set. It sits at the edge of the Macalester College campus on St. Paul's Grand Avenue. At the Hungry Mind, you can browse through an extensive collection of small-press fiction, flop down on a comfy couch and read for a while, or pick up a copy of the nationally-renowned Hungry Mind Review. Owner David Unowsky admits to mixed feelings about online superstores such as On one hand, they're convenient and make books available to people who don't live near good bookstores. On the other hand, they're a danger to independent stores such as his.

Unowsky says the Hungry Mind is doing OK financially, but in the last few years has grown at a much slower pace. He attributes some of the slowdown to Internet book buying. Other stores have felt the pinch even more. Baxter Books of Minneapolis cited Internet competition as one reason it closed last October. It had been the last major independent bookseller in downtown Minneapolis.


" "It is the little guys on Main Street, in small towns, that are at the most risk. For them, the Internet is just one more nail in the coffin. "

Kate Delhagen.

Nationally, Independent stores sold 31 percent of all consumer books in 1991. Today, that number is 17 percent. Kate Delhagen is a senior analyst at Forrester Research. She says independent bookstores need to fight back on the Internet. She says if they play the Internet right, they can retain many of their customers, even grab new ones from outside their neighborhoods and towns.

Dellhagen says independents need to develop sophisticated online stores, while maintaining their character and local flavor, to prevent further erosion. That's the idea behind It's an Amazon-like Internet store being developed by the American Booksellers Association, the dominant trade group for independent booksellers. When it opens this summer, will have about 1.5 million titles, about the same as Stores will tailor Booksense to reflect their individuality.

Independents are fighting back in other ways too. Cody's Book in Berkeley, California has established what some are calling an "Amazon.con free zone." Cody's has been a fixture in Berkeley since 1956, serving as a nerve center for radical politics and counterculture. Cody's customers can now order books over the phone and on the Internet, and have them delivered by bicycle messengers.

Independent bookstores are waging a battle in at least one state house. Minnesota State Senator Steve Kelley is proposing books and magazines be exempted from sales tax. Kelley says it's a matter of fairness, since Minnesotans who buy books from and do not pay sales taxes.

While independents are waging a battle to survive, analysts say some of the smallest among them are probably doomed, no matter what.