Contrary to popular belief, indie stores aren’t dying. In fact, their perceived executioner – the internet – might be saving them. Though the demise of independent bookstores seemed imminent a decade ago, with only 1,651 in operation in 2009, these indie stores have resurged.
Amazon’s ubiquitous presence might be convenient for readers that crave instant gratification, especially if you’re in a remote location with not a bookstore in sight. But nothing compares to the intimate and intellectual vibes of packing up your tote bag and browsing the shelves of your local indie shop. Unfortunately, quarantine put our community, arguably the main draw of indie stores, on hold. We canceled our bookstore outings and book club meetings.
The pandemic should have destroyed a business on a tenuous resurgence. Instead, TikTok seems to have saved them. In a bibliophile vacuum, many turned to BookTok for the community. With the rise of the app’s popularity during quarantine, indie stores and small businesses as a whole have seen a marked increase in sales, both online and in-person. It would seem that the supposed antithesis to reading books – scrolling through social media – has put local bookstores back in business.
What is BookTok?
Think of your dream version of a book club adapted to brief videos on social media. You can interact with the video and its creator as well as a host of other bibliophiles (and maybe an internet troll or two). The content appears limitless as you scroll through your personalized feed, book-related hashtags or creators’ book pages. It materializes almost immediately, and creators distill content into segments anywhere from seconds to three minutes in length.
Itching for a new recommendation perfectly tailored to your favorite genres, character tropes and mood? TikTokers film themed recommendations, such as goblin core books or enemies-to-lovers books. They flip through several books with summaries set to dramatic music. Are you still unsure whether “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” lives up to its hype? Check out the melodramatic reviews, both bad and good, or peruse the video trend, “Books I Read Because TikTok Told Me To.”
Sometimes the videos have substance and engage in dialogues, like on “Dune’s” political themes. Sometimes they showcase rainbow bookshelves and shiny book embossers. Sometimes TikTokers upload time-lapses of reading marathons and subsequent reactions. Sometimes they don luxurious costumes inspired by realms in a popular saga. Regardless of the content, BookTok offers a sense of community in a period of unprecedented isolation.
How could a social media app allow indie bookstores to compete with a giant corporation that capitalizes on instant gratification? You might say that TikTok offers its own form of instant gratification. Our brains crave stimulation, but our attention spans suffer from a digitalized lifestyle.
TikTok allows us to scroll mindlessly through brief videos and instantly absorb content about whatever we choose. Some users confess to scrolling through BookTok content longer than reading actual books. While we wait for our local bookstore to stock the sequel we’re dying to read, we have BookTok content to satiate our bibliophilic appetites.
Beyond BookTok, digital platforms that support local, independent bookstores have begun to emerge. For example, Bookshop.org, endorsed by American Booksellers Association (ABA), is an online bookstore that financially supports indie stores. Instead of handing their money to Amazon, consumers can support local bookstores by ordering books through the organization’s website. Just like Amazon, they ship directly to your home, and, unlike Amazon, they have earned over US$15 million for indie stores.
“The pandemic woke us up to how we need to keep our money in our communities to support each other and the local bookshops we love, even when we shop online,” says Andy Hunter, chief executive officer of Bookshop.org.
Local culture and curation
“As someone who works closely with many indie bookstores all over the country, I have seen and been a part of the culture that comes with such great institutions,” says writer and filmmaker Daniel Hess. “The internet is a great way to allow people further access to bookstores, but it is also a great resource for people to share about finding this perhaps once hard-to-know-about spots. For example someone with a big online following sharing a trip to one is huge for an indie bookstore looking to gain more business.”
Independent bookstores thrive on vibes. A booksellers’ passion for their books is magnetic to their customers. From the books they curate to the interior decoration, the aspects of a bookstore’s ambience require a sense of community. Successful bookstores offer an experience unique to the area.
The Ripped Bodice of Los Angeles sells exclusively within the genre and subgenres of romance, while Powell’s City of Books screams Portland with its towering shelves and local Princess Bride-themed coffee shop. Other lesser-known indie bookstores are beloved local institutions draped in greenery or hidden in an alley.
Aside from the community atmosphere, it’s all about curating retail inventory to meet the interests of local customers. Curation requires carefully organized and themed displays, like TikTok books or New York Times bestsellers in nonfiction. But more than that, booksellers play the role of matchmaking between customers and their inventory.
Even after spending hours in a bookstore, a customer is unlikely to view every product in the store. People tend to frequent bookstores for in-person recommendations. Ultimately, each independent bookstore should feel like scrolling through your favorite side of BookTok. It should feel communal and personal – a feeling corporations cannot replicate, regardless of sales.
Is your business doing something cool that you want to show off? Get in touch at [email protected]
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.