February 22, 2011

Reinventing Independence

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WITH THE ADVENT OF THE INTERNET, the popularization of large retail chains and the mechanization of once boutique industries into the likes of multinational conglomerates, we are increasingly shifting away from the local and personal and toward the corporate and detached.

We were at risk for more of the same here in Ithaca this past week. The owner of the town’s last independent new bookstore, Buffalo Street Books, announced that he planned to close his shop after failing to compete with corporate bookstore chains.

This would have been a dispiriting moment in Ithaca’s history. Independent bookstores hold tremendous value for a town’s residents. Such bookstores need not be held accountable to national trends and can instead focus on the specific, niche interests of a community. They do not need to fear endangering their company’s corporate image by breaking certain uniform standards and carrying less accessible literature.

The local store emphasizes quality over quantity, educational value over profits and lesser-known gems over mainstream culture. This is what makes them valuable, but it’s also what makes them difficult to sustain.

So while we commend Ithaca’s residents for pledging to gather enough donations to purchase Buffalo Street Books as a co-op, we hope that they recognize that its current business model will need to be altered to prevent it from nearing bankruptcy again.

Buffalo Street Books should take lessons from what its corporate rivals already do so well. This means marketing and publicizing its brand better to the local community by fostering a stronger online presence. In the new digital age, Twitter and Facebook have become vital tools to a company’s success.

Beyond outreach to the community, Buffalo Street Books should also look inward and promote what it already does so well. The specific strength of local bookstores, including Buffalo Street Books, are their ability to cater to the needs of local communities. Local bookstores still hold one strength over their faceless corporate counterparts, namely their unique knowledge of their regional culture and their ability to connect with their customers.

Local independent bookstores — a holdover from an increasingly fading past — will need to adapt if they are to succeed now and into the future.