Independent booksellers and our fans have been saying for a long time that supporting locally owned businesses is good for the community. But the actual dollars and cents of this equation have remained vague until now. So if you've been wondering exactly what difference where you spend your dollar makes, or if you've been frustrated in arguments with friends and relations, stay with me here. I've got some astonishing numbers to share. I'm not a numbers person, either; I'm a bookseller who loves her job because she loves books. If you can give me five minutes of your time with the dry stuff at the beginning of this article, I will reward you with some impassioned prose at the end.
A long-overdue analysis of the actual economic impact of local merchants versus chain retailers was released in December, comparing the contribution of a planned Borders Books and Music with two nearby independent bookstores in Austin, Texas. The findings exceeded my wildest suspicions: the study found that out of five million dollars of business annually, a Borders would have a local impact of only $820,000, while BookPeople, an independent Austin bookstore, would make a difference of $2.8 million and Waterloo, an independent record store, would have an impact of $4.1 million.
This impact was measured in three basic ways:
First, local merchants spend a much larger portion of total revenue on local labor, either as booksellers or for outside services like accounting and legal needs. Second, local merchants keep their modest profits in the local economy. And third, local merchants provide strong support for local artists and authors, creating a further local economic impact. By contrast, Borders and other chain stores centralize much of their office labor in a remote location, also buying goods and services on a national basis as well, which contributes nothing to local economies. Furthermore, their local profits are pooled at the national level for distribution to stockholders all over the world.
A five-year projection showed that the addition of a Borders in the mix of bookstores would actually decrease their combined gross impact by $2.4 million dollars. In other words, if BookPeople and Waterloo were to remain in place as the only stores, their five-year impact on the local economy would be $37.5 million dollars, while the addition of the planned Borders would reduce that to $35.1 million dollars! The study explains why the addition of the chain store would not mean a net increase in impact for the community in this way: "This counterintuitive outcome occurs because every dollar drawn away from a locally owned merchant by a chain store results in a net loss to the local economy. Activity generated by new sales does not replace the activity lost in that diversion of sales."
According to the study, what this means to the consumer is that for every $100 that he or she spends at Borders, only $9 remains in the community, while the impact of spending $100 in either of the local stores would be nearly $45!
Although these rather astonishing numbers speak for themselves, I shall take the liberty of explaining them in St. Louis terms. In 1990, St. Louis had several excellent, full-line independent bookstores: Paul's Books in University City, City Books on Olive in West County, Library Ltd. in Clayton, Webster Groves Books and Left Bank Books. Today, we have just one Left Bank Books. Webster Groves Bookshop is still with us but in a vastly focused capacity. Our World Too, the LGBT bookstore, also closed. Legacy Books and the other African-American bookstores hang on by a thread, largely on the basis of volunteer labor.
What we have instead is a ring of nearly a dozen Borders and Barnes & Nobles. Using the Austin study as a guide, it is clear that St. Louis area communities like Clayton and University City would have benefited more had Paul's and Library Ltd. been able to remain instead of the Borders and Barnes & Noble that replaced them. Overall, instead of an array of unique, independent bookstores offering tailored selections of unusual books and personal service, we have miles of mind-numbing aisles of blockbuster mega-entertainment.
Although the Austin study confined itself to "bricks and mortar" stores, I feel I must say a word or two about Internet sales. Many times a purported customer at Left Bank has declined an offer to special order a book, saying he or she would buy it online. They are not referring to our online store, which they seem reluctant to even consider. They would rather buy from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.com, the most oft-cited reason being that they can get a discount. While that discount usually evaporates with shipping costs, it is sometimes possible to save on freight if you spend enough. There are several reasons this is a pound-foolish idea. First, Internet stores pay no sales tax to any state, thus supporting no local economy at this most basic level. A tax-free purchase may seem attractive when you are picking out a novel to read, but when you look around and see the infrastructure of your community crumbling because of declining tax revenues, you might want to think again.
Secondly, none of the sales revenue goes into your community. None of it is invested locally. None. Third, considering the economics of it, why buy something online from a stranger when you could get it from your neighbors at Left Bank Books or another locally owned store just as fast, maybe faster? Fourth, when you buy online you generate wasteful use of packaging resources. Another tree goes down, another landfill goes up. If you must buy online, why not try a Booksense-affiliated store like Left Bank Books? We, too, offer speedy turnaround time and a vast list of nearly every book in print from which to choose. Plus, any questions or problems that come up are answered by an actual person, a person you might even know! And of course, the money stays in town.
The economic impact argument is strong for supporting your local bookseller. But it is not the argument nearest and dearest to my heart. The reasons I am passionate about supporting your local bookstore cannot be quantified. How can you put a price tag on our Clark Elementary project, which, with the support of our customers, delivers a book a month into the hands of third graders who would otherwise never own a book? What about our Book Angel project and the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) "Hand Hope to a Child" project that also provide books to children who otherwise wouldn't have them? Or the hundreds of books and gift certificates we donate annually to any number of community organizations for fundraisers, the speaking engagements we do, the local organizations we partner with on author appearances, the hours spent helping local authors figure out the next step? And then there're the local artists whose careers were given a start or a boost in our gallery, artists like Michael Eastman, Mary Engelbreit, John Rozelle, Carol Carter and Joan Bugnitz. How can you measure the community impact of the number of LGBT folks who drew the courage to take the first step out of the closet through a visit to Left Bank Books?
A local bookstore is as necessary to the cultural life of a community as its orchestras, theatres, museums and individual artists. We mediate between the writer and the community in unique and essential ways that national corporations can imitate but never actually reproduce. We are often at the forefront of civil liberties issues. It is a consortium of independent bookstores that is challenging the U.S. Patriot Act that allows the government to secretly subpoena the customer records of bookstores. We see ourselves as lynchpins in the defense of the constitutionally granted freedoms to read and publish.
Furthermore, independent bookstores are the original Internet, having served for years before websites existed as virtually the only clearinghouse for information on politics and culture. We remain an integral part of the real web, a thread in that vital and vibrant entity we call community. Accept no substitutes!
Kris Kleindienst is co-owner of Left Bank Books, where she has worked for 29 years. She writes a column in the Vital Voice newspaper and is the editor of "This Is What Lesbian Looks Like."