By Edward Nawotka
Niche bookstores are being squeezed on both side: first from the chains which offer an increasingly broad range of products and second from digital, which offers virtually all products. To survive, niche bookstores — whether focusing on mysteries, travel, or mind-body-spirit (such as Watkin’s Books, discussed in today’s feature story) — will need to be offer to hold onto their customer bases. Many customers are fiercely loyal to their “local” store, especially when that store can offer a unique roster of events (Idlewild Books in New York City offers language classes, to cite just one example) and/or a title selection that cannot be easily replicated online (such as the library of out-of-print and rare books available at Murder by the Book, a mystery bookstore in Houston, Texas).
Ironically, the Internet is often at its best when catering to niches. While the general trade industry wrings its hands over the proliferation of titles online and issues of “discoverability” — readers of specific tranches of books often know in advance exactly what they are searching for and how to find it online. In fact, because the Web has made publishing online so easy, there’s often a surfeit of information to cater to particular niches. Often, it is more timely as well — think only of the vast amount of real-time travel information available online and you’ll know what I mean.
So, the question is, can niche bookstores survive in the digital age? If so, what is it they offer that cannot be replicated by anyone else?