With the global behemoth Amazon looming into the offline space at the new Amazon Books store, its first physical location in Washington, D.C., the long-term survival of the independent bookstore would seem to be in question.

Last year, NPR reported the number of independent bookstores in the United States grew by 35 percent between 2009 and 2015 — a statistic that cuts against the traditional wisdom. While Amazon was expanding rapidly and retail as a whole was facing a significant downturn, independent bookstores were not merely surviving; they were multiplying.

From Bridge Street Books to secondhand stores like Second Story Books, independent bookstores have endured as part of the community by carving out their own niche or capitalizing on the shifting market.

NATALIE ISÉ/THE HOYA | Longtime staple Bridge Street Books sees the new Amazon store as no more competition than the other chain bookstores across the city that have since closed. Bookstores like Second Story Books have even made their own digital mark with online stores.

Tangible Texts

Rod Smith, the manager of Bridge Street Books on Pennsylvania Avenue, started at the store in 1988 and has worked there continuously since 1992. The store itself has been a fixture since 1980, though much has changed in the nearly 40 years since it was first established.

“Before the web, bookstores were the web,” Smith said in an interview with The Hoya. “So the primacy of bookstores has probably changed, and I’d say in the 2000s, there was a few minutes where people thought maybe bookstores were going to disappear, and then they realized that they didn’t want that to happen and started supporting them more.”

Some of that support comes from Georgetown’s own faculty. Libbie Rifkin, a professor of English, directs her students to get required texts at independent establishments and often orders course books through Bridge Street Books instead of the campus bookstore.

“I’ve always wanted to enable students to get small press editions and other things that the book store’s not so good at handling. I’ve tried like once or twice,” Rifkin said. “I just like the fact that Rod Smith knows this world really well.”

The success of independent bookstores is in some ways a matter of the shopping experience: Visiting a bookstore in person provides more diversified and unexpected options than browsing for books online. Some bookstores, like Second Story Books, an antiquarian, used and out-of-print bookstore, offer a carefully curated selection, according to the owner Allan Stypeck, who bought the store in 1973.

“We’re not repetitive,” Stypeck said in an interview with The Hoya. “You come into our store and you’re not going to see the same titles generally that you’re going to see in a new bookstore.”

The books are meticulously chosen by a well-informed staff, who evaluate everything that goes on the shelves. Stypeck is a senior member of the American Society of Appraisers as well as a member of two antiquarian booksellers’ associations. Second Story’s stock, too, is constantly changing based on collections that are brought in.

“Right now we have this extraordinarily large collection of opera, classical and entertaining ephemera, autographs, books related to that,” Stypeck said. “We have a huge collection of out-of-print chess books.”

Their stock is not limited to books, either: Visitors to the store can also find a variety of antiques on display.

“Tomorrow I’m going to be bringing in a collection of African sculpture,” Stypeck said.

By expanding beyond just notable texts, Stypeck believes that customers will get more out of their time at Second Story Books.

“We feel it’s a much more stimulating environment,” Stypeck said.

Visiting a physical bookstore such as Bridge Street Books provides a more enriching time for readers than buying books on a phone or tablet, according to Smith.

“Part of the reason I think is, for a genuinely engaged reading experience, one doesn’t want to stare at a screen,” Smith said.

Community Constants

Integral to the difference between an independent bookstore and a massive chain is that the independent store becomes a central part of its community’s cultural identity, whereas the chain bookstore could be anywhere.

Rifkin, who has focused her work on the communities that form around poetry, has found independent bookstores serve as not only a place to buy books, but also a center of the poetry community in many cities.

“I did some of my first dissertation and first book research on scenes in New York and San Francisco and other places, all of which had bookstores that were central to the experience of poetry, to kind of living that life,” Rifkin said.

The District has been no exception to creating this community. Smith is a poet and editor in addition to store manager, and the store often holds poetry readings at Bridge Street Books.

“It’s a real locus of energy, or at least it has been over the years, for poetry in D.C.,” Rifkin said. “It is the independent bookstore that does this kind of stuff, the way, for instance, City Lights Books in San Francisco, that Lawrence Ferlinghetti started, that was at the heart of the Beat movement, is still for San Francisco.”

Despite the District’s history of independent bookstores, the environment of maintaining one has changed over the years, according to Stypeck.

“Bookselling itself is a different criteria than it was when bricks-and-mortar ruled,” Stypeck said. “Now 90 percent of your sales on a rainy day are not going to be people coming in out of the rain, they’re going to be staying at home and they’re going to be buying online, so you have to make a very concerted effort to focus on those markets that are responding to your inventory.”

Offline Goes Online

FILE PHOTO: MAGGIE CHEN/THE HOYA | Over the past two decades, many independent bookstore owners and customers feared their favorite literary hotspots would disappear because of the rise of the internet. However, the response from communities in the District has led to bookstores surviving and thriving despite competition from internet giants like Amazon.

For secondhand stores like Second Story Books, the growth of the internet led to a chance to diversify their distribution by creating online shops. Although Second Story Books downsized from six locations to their current two in Dupont Circle and Rockville, Md., the fewer locations have not meant a decline in business, according to Stypeck.

“As we realized online sales were reliable and the proximity of our bricks-and-mortar stores were competing with one another, and the online sales were giving us a higher percentage of our annual sales, we decided to consolidate our bricks-and-mortar stores to the most appropriate retail areas,” Stypeck said.

Unlike many new book stores, according to The New York Times, Second Story Books has benefited from the rise of Amazon as an online marketplace, maintaining three online stores through Amazon, eBay and its own website.

“We have a huge Amazon presence, we sell on Amazon, we have an inventory directly dedicated to Amazon alone,” Stypeck said.

But even before the age of Amazon, Second Story Books wholeheartedly embraced the internet.

“We’ve been involved with the internet since its inception. We did the beta testing for a company that later become Alibris Books, I think it was called Interloc, that actually paid us a dollar a book in the early to mid-1990s to put five or eight thousand books online,” Stypeck said.

Although sales were initially disappointing, with the shop only selling around $400 in inventory that year, according to Stypeck, Second Story Books’ online sales would increase even as more and more people turned to the internet to buy books.

Despite the closure of some big book retailers like Borders over the past few years, independent bookstores still have brick-and-mortar competitors: Expanding beyond the online market, an Amazon bookstore moved in on M Street last year.

Still, Smith was not worried the store would affect Bridge Street Books, citing that the Amazon store simply does not provide an equivalent alternative.

“Our customers and staff are not big fans of the kind of economic power that Amazon wants to assume; I think it’s a bad thing,” Smith said. “I walked in there once and I got as far as the second table where they were selling blenders. And I was like, well, they took my blender business away.”

By catering to a different set of consumers who are looking for a more personal experience, Smith has seen his store outlast other big competitors and expects the same with Amazon.

“I mean, there’s a way in which they don’t really have much to do with us, and that store seems as much an ad as an actual store,” Smith said. “We’ve seen big ones come and go. Barnes and Noble was in the space beside where Amazon is for years and they’re gone.”

ROCHELLE VAYNTRUB/THE HOYA |
Bridge Street Books and Second Story Books are not the only independent bookstores in the District to have survived the online onslaught of digital platforms. Other establishments that still stand include Kramerbooks and The Lantern Bookshop, above.

Enough people still seem to need Bridge Street Books that its owners were not worried about the future or its nearby Amazon competitor. For now, Smith sees a different threat to business.

“The weather has hurt us this year more than anything. It keeps raining and raining and raining, and especially on the weekends,” Smith said. “But I expect we’ll get back to pretty steady growth in the next several years.”

As long as independent bookstores continue to serve a purpose for readers beyond simply purchasing books, they will provide an invaluable ambiance distinct from that of the chain bookstore, according to Rifkin.

“For me, what’s great is to go upstairs in Bridge Street Books and just sit in the poetry and literary criticism section, which is right where the course books are,” Rifkin said. “That’s a unique experience that I’d like to preserve for as long as possible.”

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