Independent bookshops: a model for the future (digital too!)

Simonetta Fiori is a journalist who follows with great competence the editorial-market sector for the newspaper Repubblica. In the last few days, during which the offer of a merging contract on behalf of Mondadori to the book sector of RCS has dominated discussions, she has written an interesting article which has a strong title: Più piccole e con l’anima – la rivincita delle librerie (Smaller and soulful – the redress of bookshops). Besides its title, the piece is striking because it reproposes the model of independent bookshops, considered by certain profets of the editorial world to be decisively finished, for the revamping of Mondadori’s chain-bookstores.

Picture from the Facebook profile of the Libet bookshop.
Picture from the Facebook profile of the Libet bookshop.

Fiori writes: “giantism is not paying anymore. If in America independent bookshops are coming back – since 2009 they have grown by 20% – in Europe, large stores are thinking small; the size of the shops is reduced and they are aiming for the idea of the old fashioned bookseller. That’s right, the bookseller himself, flesh, bone and competence. A revolution which is swimming against the current and which reaches Italy in the days heated by talks between Mondadori and RCS, when the shade of a colossus – which could end up controlling 40% of the market – makes competitiors, writers and the entire editorial citadel tremble in fear. In a system in which few today possess the entire production chain of a book, a new commercial model is making way for itself: ‘The chain of independent bookstores’.

Finally, the tide of common (non)sense is turning. With this and our next few posts on our small blog, at TwoReads we want to ‘correct’ the only thing the article for Republicca left out. We want to show how independent bookshops work and make sure that their voices are heard. We will begin from those in Milan.

We must inform you from the offset that we are designing an app precisely for independent bookstores. That’s right, we are not neutral: we invest and believe in independent bookshops. To be honest, we must admit that only for having worked side by side with them we have truly understood their importance, both in cultural profile and in economic role within a city.

Let us introduce the first piece of data, important and neglecte: the wealth of offer of independent bookshops reaches far beyond that of chain bookstores. In Milan alone, there are more than fifty independent bookstores and their catalogues combined generate the largest bookshop in Italy.

We must take a moment to reflect on the specificity of the system of independent bookshops and an analogy with a wine merchant can prove useful, especially in these times when books and food are often juxtaposed. A medieum-sized winehouse has approximately 1200 different wines. For each type it displays about four bottles on the racks and another six in the cellar. Furthermore, prices vary from about €5 to about €250, depending on the quality of the wine. A small bookshop can easily story about 5000 different items, from 300 different publishers at least. For everyitem there is an average of one copy per shelf. There is usually no storehouse and if there is, it is usually very small. Most books are priced bedtween €8 and €30, and typically at around €15. Lastly, none of these bookshops is like any other.

Libreria dello Spettacolo
Libreria dello Spettacolo

Let us take 5000 items as an average – a very low one – for an independent bookshop. For the bookstores in Milan, therefore, the total count of books amounts to 5000 x 50, i.e. 250 000 items. Naturally, we must get rid of books which overlap (i.e., books which are present in more than one library), so we hypothesise a very high 50% of these. We get a bookshop with 125 000 single items: the largest bookshop in the city of Milan.

These are very careful calculations: for example, Hoepli, in Milan, has just under 100 000 items, and a bookshop which is considered to be small by publishing standards, can easily contain 10 000 items. We would not be surprised therefore, that with real data at hand, the number of single items present in independent bookshops in Milan would be trebled.

We must now make a case study of these bookshops, each one with their own characteristics, in a more ample perspective: the city and the bookshop. Every independent bookshop plays a crucial role in this city “organism”. More specifically, they are a sector, more general or more specific. We go from the various section, which covers everything from a number of general subjects to the super-specialised sectors which are supplied with extreme precision for certain themes: history, sport, theatre, cinema, law, medicine… and we must stop here because we still do not know all the independent bookshops in Milan. But one can get a good idea by exploring the variety on the website of the LIM (Librerie Indipendenti Milano, ‘Independent Bookshops Milan’), which gathers 26 of them together.

Clearly, in these bookshops you will find booksellers who have an incredible amount of knowledge on the variety and exactness of the content of the store. They will be able to accommodate you, and if you want, guide you with competence and passion.

Bookstores and area, in a new way. If I’m in Milan, I want to buy a book and I know where I can find it, in an hour (max) I can reach one of the independent bookshops which stores it. Amazon doesn’t deliver a book to you in one hour and even if/when it does, one misses the opportunity to take a good walk around a beautiful and original independent bookshop. We can not hide from the fact, obviously, that in a number of situations, online purchase in a large chain-store and home delivery are the reader’s preferred course of action; however, we must not surrender to the false idea that going to a bookshop is now considered to be a waste of time and energy.

Of course, booksellers will have to work even harder than they did in the past in order to involve their customers, but in this, without the shadow of a doubt, it is independent booksellers, in cities such as Rome, Milan and Venice as well as in smaller provincial cities, who are showing most inventive and tenacity.

In short: books, area and movement. At TwoReads, we want to do our part for a product which comes from a simple and, we think, promising idea; allowing independent-bookstore catalogues to be publicly available from a single digital-access point (apps, internet, etc.) and to indicate to customers whether the book is available near them. Readers, ‘in the area’, will therefore be able to find items, obtain the desired book in a short amount of time, discover a city via its books and its bookstores, and discover new books still.

In our project, Milan is the starting point, we will then expand the servic to all the independent bookshops in Italy that want to take part.

We are prepareing, with OpenStreetMap, the map of independent bookshops in Milan.
We are prepareing, with OpenStreetMap, the map of independent bookshops in Milan.

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