City Life

Madison's independent bookstores buck the online sales trend

A Room of One's Own and Mystery to Me thriving

Reports of the death of independent bookstores have been greatly exaggerated. 

“We have never done better than now,” says Sandi Torkildson, co-owner of downtown Madison’s Room of One’s Own since 1975. “A lot of independent bookstores are doing quite well.”

Joanne Berg, owner of Monroe Street’s Mystery to Me bookstore since 2013, echoes Torkildson’s sentiments: “This is our fifth year, and it is going very well. Every month and every year we beat our sales projections.”

Torkildson and Berg’s sunny assessments conflict with the conventional wisdom that online retailers, such as Amazon, and big box stores like Barnes & Noble, Walmart and Costco, are selling all of the books and crushing everyone else.

Indeed, in the time since those giants began selling books, Madison’s Borders bookstores closed and the company went out of business, and local treasures Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, Canterbury Booksellers and, in Mount Horeb, the Prairie Bookshop, closed their doors as well. On Oct. 31, 2017, the Appleton-based chain Book World announced that it was going out of business and would close all 20 of its stores in small Wisconsin towns, including the one closest to Madison in Baraboo.

In a statement announcing Book World’s liquidation, senior vice president Mark Dupont remarked, “The national shift in the retail marketplace toward e-commerce has triggered the loss of vital mall anchor stores and a downward spiral in customer counts at Book World stores, reducing sales to a level that will no longer sustain the business.”

While local sales figures for books are difficult to come by, the message of the health of brick and mortar bookstores nationwide is mixed. 

Retail sales at U.S. bookstores were down 10.9 percent in August 2017 compared to August 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, sales at independent bookstores, as reported to the weekly Indie Bestseller Lists, were up 2 percent for the year. Overall, bookstore sales for the first half of 2017 were up .2 percent over sales from the previous year.

For Berg, Mystery to Me has survived by differentiating itself from Amazon by scheduling as many in-store author events as possible and offering itself up as a community center. The Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association holds its biannual social gathering at the store. In the summer of 2017, Berg hosted a Forward Theater Co. reading of an Agatha Christie play, with actors and authors taking turns reading lines.

“Bookstores have had to evolve,” Berg says.  

Berg and Torkildson both emphasize the importance of experienced, knowledgeable booksellers who interact with customers face-to-face and get to know the preferences and prior purchases of regulars who appreciate suggestions. These interactions are advantages that Amazon, with its sales logarithms and innumerable anonymous customer reviews, can’t replicate.

Torkildson also says she has seen a major uptick in out-of-town customers in recent years. She believes the disappearance of bookstores in smaller communities, combined with Madison’s ability to attract out-of-town visitors, is helping bookstores like hers. People who visit Madison for its restaurants, conventions, Badgers games and other events are now more apt to go to the city’s bookstores because shopping in a bookstore is not always an option where they live.

“For some people visiting the city for the first time, a real bookstore is something they have never seen before,” Torkildson says. 

Dustin Beilke is a Madison freelance writer.

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