Harvard Explores How Independent Bookstores Have Stuck Around in the Amazon Era

Bookstores Amazon era

Amazon may slowly be turning the small consumer business world into a Mad Max-ian wasteland, but brick-and-mortar bookstores are still somehow enduring, writes Harvard Business School.

Ryan Raffaelli, an Organizational Behavior professor at HBS and field researcher whose work is inspired by stories of “technology reemergence,” including the recent reinvention of the Swiss watch industry, has prepared a new abstract due for publication in 2018, “Reframing Collective Identity in Response to Multiple Technological Discontinuities: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores.”

Raffaeli examined how, after a nearly two-decade-long plummet, independent bookstores staged an unprecedented comeback between 2009 and 2015 after “Amazon forced Borders out of business in 2011.” This was also due in no small part to the efforts of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), which facilitated “partnerships between bookstores and other local businesses and strengthened the collective identity of indie bookstores by helping its members share best practices, such as how to use social media to promote special events.”

Raffaeli explains, “This has been an especially fascinating industry to study because indie booksellers provide us with a story of hope.”

Over 200 bookstore owners, publishers, and authors across 13 states were surveyed and the results were consolidated into the “3 C’s of independent bookselling’s resurgence community, curation, and convening.”

Community: “Bookstore owners across the nation promoted the idea of consumers supporting their local communities by shopping at neighborhood businesses [and] stressing a strong connection to local community values.”

Curation: “Independent booksellers began to focus on curating inventory that allowed them to provide a more personal and specialized customer experience.”

Convening: “Independent bookstores have become intellectual centers for convening customers with likeminded interests—offering lectures, book signings, game nights, children’s story times, young adult reading groups, even birthday parties.”

“The theoretical and managerial lessons we can learn from independent bookstores have implications for a wide array of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses facing technological change.”


About the Author

Jonathan Pfeffer

Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as contributing writer at MetroMBA and contributing editor at Clear Admit, he is co-founder and lead producer of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.

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