Indie booksellers create community to survive the age of Amazon

Since bottoming out in 2009, the number of indie booksellers nationwide has grown by 35 percent

A couple pose for a photo in a bookstore.
Angel and Bob Dobrow opened Zenith Bookstore in Duluth in 2017. “I felt from the beginning that we had a tiger by the tail,” said Bob Dobrow.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The seeds for the Zenith Bookstore, which opened in Duluth 2 1/2 years ago, were sown on the streets of Manhattan.

"We used to love walking the streets and visiting bookstores — we’re both big readers,” said Bob Dobrow, who together with his wife, Angel, owns the cozy bookstore on the city’s Central Avenue.

"We were young and in love and full of energy, and we would walk for hours,” recalled Angel Dobrow.

The Dobrows recall casually musing to one another, “Wouldn’t it be fun one day to open a bookstore?”

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But they got married and had kids. Bob became a math professor at Carleton College and they moved to Northfield, Minn. When he retired a few years ago, they were packing up boxes and boxes of books, and that idea popped into their heads again.

“It was literally like a bolt of lightning," Bob Dobrow said.

Never mind that they had never owned any kind of business before, or that people had been predicting the death of small bookstores since Barnes & Noble, Amazon and e-books.

But they moved north to Duluth, depleted their savings to remodel an old liquor store and opened for business on a summer day in 2017.

"It was pandemonium in here,” said Angel Dobrow. “There were TV cameras, and the mayor came, and all these people from Duluth came. It was crazy!"

"I felt from the beginning that we had a tiger by the tail,” Bob Dobrow said. “I was not expecting the extent to which we were embraced by the community."

Sales have grown about 60 percent since that first year, he said. The Dobrows attribute that in part to a loyal customer base that is willing to spend a little more on a book to support a local business.

"One of my great fears was that bookstores would go away, so I feel almost a moral obligation to be in bookstores,” said Chris Johnson, an education professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth who stopped by last week to pick up some books for his college-age kids.

“It’s probably not the norm, but I think it’s important to book lovers that such places exist,” he added.

Since bottoming out in 2009, the number of independent booksellers nationwide has grown by about 35 percent. There are now more than 1,900 independent booksellers across the country, who together operate more than 2,500 stores.

"It's pretty remarkable ... what they've been able to do in terms of repositioning themselves," said Harvard business professor Ryan Raffaelli, who for the past eight years has studied how independent bookstores have managed to be the David to Amazon's Goliath.

He's boiled it down to a few things.

First, there’s the Buy Local movement, which he said indie bookstores helped create.

"Booksellers are deeply embedded in helping to define this notion of why the consumer should shop local," he explained.

Then there's what Raffaelli calls “curation.”

"If you see a great bookseller at his or her craft, you'll see them ask questions like, ‘What are the last five books that you read?’ And then they'll steer a reader into a genre potentially that is outside [what they’d normally read],” he said. “But they say, ‘This is your next great book.’”

That expertise and experience enables booksellers to compete against the algorithms Amazon uses to recommend books, he said.

And then there’s this: Many bookstores have made themselves much more than just booksellers. They're also community gathering places.

That was the idea behind Cream & Amber, one of at least five new bookstores that have opened across Minnesota this year. Katie Terhune's shop in Hopkins, just southwest of Minneapolis, also offers six Minnesota craft beers on tap.

"We wanted to make a place where good beer and books could come together and people could meet over those two things," she said.

The store also has a cafe and hosts events like candlelight yoga and book clubs to bring customers in the door.

Still, despite the resilience of independent bookshops, for many it’s an uphill climb.

"It's a business with razor-thin profits,” said Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer with the American Booksellers Association. “I don't want to be a Pollyanna because on the one hand, there's been solid success. But on the other hand, it's a challenging road ahead of them as well."

He said many bookstores face escalating rents and struggle to pay living wages and benefits to their employees.

At the Zenith Bookstore in Duluth on a recent Saturday, sales were brisk. A local author signed books for customers. But Bob Dobrow remained realistic.

"My wife has this saying which we repeat a lot, which is, nobody’s getting rich but the bills are getting paid,” he said, laughing.

Plus, he gets a lot of satisfaction out of it. When he turns out the lights at the end of each day, he said, “I get goosebumps just looking at what we’ve created.”