Return of the Indie Bookseller? Brooklyn’s BookCourt Expands

We missed this article on Friday about one of our favorite bookstores, Cobble Hill's BookCourt.

In the late 1990's, whining about the fate of independent bookstores was a favorite pastime in a certain New York demographic. But the counterexamples are starting to crop up: For every Madison Avenue Bookshop there is a Corner Bookstore; Shakespeare and Company never really went out of business; and now comes word that BookCourt is expanding for a third time in response to demand in its nook in Cobble Hill.

Even as national retailers start to squeeze out independent retailers a block away on Smith Street, BookCourt, despite competition from a Barnes and Noble store just a few blocks north, is thriving.

Back in 1981 the store opened as a little 500-square-foot shop, will be between 3,300 and 3,600 square feet (in the same location) by Labor Day.

"With its old-fashioned double storefront and wooden bookshelves and floor, BookCourt has a homespun charm that distinguishes it from its nearby competitor," Judith Rosen writes in Publishers Weekly.

But the real reason the store is a success probably comes in the next few lines:

It also offers aggressive discounts to keep customers coming back—10% off all hardcovers, 15% off audiobooks and 20% off store bestsellers. And it is the exclusive seller of Patchwork Planet (Soft Skull Press), set in Brooklyn and created by Brooklynites Kate Milford and Jonathan Lethem.

So, is this a working formula for independent bookstores? Open up where there is a literary scene identified minutely with your neighborhood–Jonathan Lethem often writes about streets and buildings within blocks of BookCourt. And: offer discounts that make the store competitive with the big retailers (for many small businesses, which depend on pulling in their full discount from the publisher to make up for low sales volume, this will be easier said than done. How did BookCourt do it?).

We're not sure how St. Mark's Bookshop, at 9th Street and Third Avenue, does–the discounts don't seem too deep to us. But its distinctive literary associations with St. Mark's on the Bowery, a block east, gives the store a certain raison d'etre, a ready-made brand. Maybe that's why they are still with us.

The Strand's business model is too far distant from any small bookshop's to be counted as a survivor of the 90's purge of little bookstores; so we'll leave their success unexamined.