Local bookstore's support on the rise

Independent bookseller Kerry Slattery


Renita Jablonski: BookExpo America kicks off today in Los Angeles. It's the largest book trade show in the nation. Book retailers have seen better days -- particularly independent stores. But a few have bucked the trend. Commentator and independent bookseller Kerry Slattery tells us her story from the office loft above her store.

Kerry Slattery: Our little urban neighborhood in Los Angeles is abuzz these days. Passersby are actively curious about the renovation going on at the small storefront next to my bookstore.

When I put up a little sign saying it's going to be an expansion, they are incredulous and thrilled. Not another restaurant, not a big chain ice cream parlor, but our very own neighborhood bookshop is doing well enough to grow, even while many independent stores are struggling as consumers flee to big box stores and Amazon.

I keep thinking that our situation is unique, that the reason we are surviving after 11.5 years as an independent bookstore must be due to our offbeat neighborhood. Or that we have a sympathetic landlord. Or that I've just been particularly conservative with how we've handled our expenses.

Maybe it's that we're responsive to our neighborhood's needs. After all, we host readings by the local Middle School Writers Club every year, and draw top literary names. Our store cat, Lucy, who passed away recently, had a cult following. Customers even donated funds for her vet bills. But independent stores have always done these little things.

What's happening now is this: More than any other time in recent years, there is a growing national consumer awareness that big may not be better -- both in small towns as well as large cities. I'm seeing customers consider the environmental, personal and community impact of buying from locally-owned neighborhood businesses. They're realizing there's value in keeping their money -- as well as taxes that support services -- in their own community. People are starting to look around their neighborhoods a little more, and we want to be there for them when they do.

Sure, with this expansion comes new risk. But that's the beauty of writing your own story.

Jablonski: Kerry Slattery is co-owner of Skylight Books in Los Angeles.

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I'm convinced huge, chain bookstores are gradually going the way of huge, chain record stores: extinct. But just as with the death of big record stores, the death of big book stores creates great opportunities for niche and neighborhood stores like Skylight. I only go to a big chain bookstore if I'm looking for a bestseller, or a gift book, or want to browse the bargain tables. Because otherwise, I know they probably won't have what I'm looking for. If I order online, I can get the book I want 99% of the time without spending the time, effort and gasoline to go to a brick-and-mortar store, and very often I don't even have to pay for shipping. However, if I need books for my kids, whether for lit study classes at school or pleasure reading, I will always go directly to Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop, in person. Not only is the selection terrific, the staff is knowledgeable not only about kids' books in general, but about the books being used in local school curricula in particular. They hold weekly events for kids and teachers, and very frequently get big-name kids' authors to do in-store readings and signings. They are providing all the services huge chain stores and online stores can't, and don't want to, offer. And they're thriving as a result. As an indie author myself, as well as a Mom, I'm very pleased to see the little shop Judy Nelson built growing into a beloved community center. It gives me hope that when the B&N's and Borders of the world inevitably go the way of the Tower Records, there will be that much more room for small, independent booksellers.

A terrific story. Buying locally is an important statement being made by consumers around the country. It is especially important in small communities, where the economic risks of operating a small business are even greater.

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