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Why Bad “Plot Twists” Ruin Brand Stories

By Zachary Vickers

When Norman Mailer said that the novel was dead in 1955, perhaps he was also heralding the impending fate of independent bookstores. In 1995, Amazon become “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore.” At that time, Mailer could’ve noted that independent bookstores, too, were dead — in the five years following, indie bookstores shrunk by 43 percent.

But he didn’t. And the novel still isn’t dead, and neither are indie bookstores.

In fact, between 2009 and 2017, the number of independent bookstores in the United States rose by 41 percent. And as of August 2018, the year-to-date sales among American Booksellers Association member stores are up approximately 5 percent.

How is it that small mom-and-pop bookstores are showing growth and effectively competing against Amazon, which has managed to become the world’s #2 retailer?

It’s simple: independent bookstores have embraced the very thing that they’ve built their business on: the art of storytelling. By telling an effective (and affecting) story as to why small bookstores matter, they have redefined the bookstore concept in the minds of readers, winning sales away from Amazon and other mega bookstores.

Indie Bookstores Know How to Tell a Timeless Story

Ryan L. Raffaelli, a professor at Harvard University, examined how independent bookstores managed to not only survive but flourish amidst the “retail apocalypse.” Raffaelli identified three reasons for their resurgence: the supporting and fostering of community, offering customers personalized and illuminating experiences through content curation, and providing a place to convene.

These elements form the architectural framework for more than a singular bookstore — they have come to define what consumers believe a bookstore should be. Creating this platonic ideal has allowed independent stores to change the terms of their conflict against brands like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and win.

In a way, indie bookstores have found the secret code — they’ve created a new category for themselves by catering to what many consumers want: a purchase that is not merely cheap and convenient, but is part of a compelling experience.

By hitching their story to the local community’s values, the development of personal recommendations, and creating a gathering place for like-minded people to come together, indie bookstores are able to foster powerful emotional connections with their customers. At their local bookstore, customers can feel supported, listened to, and participate in a unique community all their own — experiences that can never be one-click away.

The Big Bookstores Fall Short

In Amazon’s early days, the company branded itself purely as a bookstore. With its low prices and endless selection, it is no surprise that readers migrated online. After all, it was the peak of the age of convenience.

As Amazon evolved beyond books to become “the everything store,” it sacrificed the domain expertise — and the community — inherently desirable to book lovers. As a broad digital shopping platform, Amazon became less of an intellectual center where customers with similar tastes or those looking for stimulating dialogues could engage one another, and more of a virtual big box store, where people from all over the world purchased items in one click, leaving reviews with little context or quality control.

Maybe this is partially why Amazon has opened “bewildering” brick-and-mortar bookstores across the United States where front-facing books replicate the feel of scrolling through the website. However, the mere existence of a physical store does not generate a sense of community. Rather, by seeking to replicate the virtues of the website in physical form, Amazon has just created another transactional platform emphasizing convenience — a benefit many consumers are now willing to sacrifice for a more fulfilling experience.

Amazon’s category is no longer that of bookstore. It has evolved into a brand of mass commerce, more akin to Walmart or Target than any locally-owned store. Its physical locations don’t work as bookstores simply because Amazon no longer understands what it means to be a bookstore.

[I]t seems very much like [Amazon’s brick-and-mortar] stores are trying to replicate the online business, and we are trying to do something completely different,” Jessica Stockton Bagnul, co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn told NPR. “In reality, a bookstore is a really unique kind of space where people from different walks of life can cross paths … and start to have conversations.”

Independents’ careful re-conceptualization of what a bookstore is has done more than protect their domain against online retail. It has also effectively shut out the larger, big-box style retailers.

Barnes & Noble, the giant of bookstore retail, is experimenting with adding restaurants to its stores — one in New York sells dishes from ricotta pancakes to salmon entrees. So far, however, their restaurant experience seems coldly generic, a sort of Applebee’s-type chain experience that is incongruent with customers’ desires for a bookstore that provides an authentic sense of community.

Barnes & Noble’s poor attempt to imitate the community and personalization offered by independent bookstores is unlikely to save the failing store. As of May 2018, Barnes & Noble’s stock dropped nearly 8 percent. “[T]he death of Barnes & Noble is now plausible,”  New York Times columnist David Leonhardt opined.

Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble (and Borders before it) have long been moving away from their bookstore roots. They have attempted to diversify their business — first in music, then movies, then technology — only to discover their stories have become muddied. Essentially, these businesses tried to insert a “plot twist” into their brand stories, but these twists were inexplicable — like a deus ex machina — and consumers aren’t buying it.

“Compared to the old Barnes & Noble of my childhood, the new bookstore that just opened in Ashburn, Virginia is almost unrecognizable,” Gracy Olmstead told The American Conservative. “There are only a few chairs scattered throughout, and little room to sit and read in the children’s section … Perhaps it’s this — the table full of Legos but absence of chairs for reading — that best marks Barnes & Noble’s drastic transformation. For a long time now, the bookstore has seemed to emphasize everything but books.”

At one point, you could get lost in the aisles at Barnes & Noble, and stumble across quiet oases of comfy leather chairs and, often, people reading in them. It was a place where readers wanted to gather and spend their time.

But now? The characteristics that have been revered by book lovers no longer apply to Barnes & Noble. They are now a brand that evinces none of the independents’ passion, expertise, or community, nor the one-click convenience of Amazon. As a result, consumers have left them behind.

Independent Bookstores Declare Independence

Those who have embraced the story behind Raffaelli’s findings — by understanding the emotional and human connections evinced in books and then creating experiences and auxiliary products that enhance those connections — are defining, and dominating, bookstore sales.

In 2013, Nicole Sullivan, a stay-at-home mother, was relaxing one evening with a good book and a glass of wine when she realized she could provide the same experience to others. BookBar, in Denver, offers a robust wine and craft beer list, in addition to book clubs. And above BookBar? BookBed: a literary-themed one-bedroom apartment that attracts famous authors for readings and signings. When there isn’t an event, you can even rent the space on Airbnb.

Then there’s Upshur Street Books in Washington D.C. Beyond hosting events like readings, open mics, singalongs, and historic neighborhood tours, a local bartender crafts literary-themed cocktails by contemporary and classic authors, like Colson Whitehead, Marcel Proust, and Ursula K Le Guin. Similarly, in Lake Worth, Florida, The Book Cellar’s cafe offers coffee, wine, sandwiches and pastries, all with literary-inspired names, like “The Great Goatsby” flatbread and a “Green Eggs & Ham” breakfast.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, Brewery Bhavana is an all-in-one brewery, dim sum restaurant, flower shop, and bookstore. “It’s that library…that fosters dialogue among strangers, daily,” co-founder and general manager Vansana Nolintha told CityLab. “[I]t becomes an invitation for guests to have these meaningful conversations. It is a bookstore, it is a flower shop, it is a brewery, it is a restaurant, but at the heart of it, it is a community.”

In Chicago, Esther Dairiam opened a culinary bookstore, Read It & Eat. Beyond selling cookbooks and hosting author readings, Read It & Eat offers cooking classes, wine tastings, and even the occasional pop-up dinner.

What ties all these different indie stores together — and distinguishes them from national chains like Barnes & Nobles — is they are able to design experiences catered to their local community of book lovers, and therefore bring them together to celebrate and learn more about the written word. This deepens the connection not just between the bookstore and its customers, but between readers and writers, readers and books, and readers who live near each other.

Since the dawn of time, humans have sought out stories — not just those in bookstores, but those from each other. Stories connect us. And bookstores have become a venue not just to purchase stories but to experience them with others. As Janet Webster Jones, owner of Source Booksellers, told Model D, “Bookstores provide a place where people can convene. Human beings want their stuff, but they also want relationships.”

This principle goes well beyond bookstores. Understanding that the core “why” of one’s business often include experiences broader than the product, can create powerful connections with customers. Such narratives are buoying neighborhood toy stores in the wake of Toys “R” Us’s downfall; empowering small hardware stores to go toe-to-toe with Home Depot and Lowe’s; and even resurrecting travel agents in the age of Expedia and Orbitz.

As Adam Lean, founder of The CFO Project wrote on The Startup, people purchase products not just based on cost and convenience, but on emotion. They want to buy from people they trust. And trust is often built on relationships, and community, and a genuine sense of authenticity that only arises when a company understands its whole story.

Zachary Vickers is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.