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The Harvard Business Review has a story about how, after a time when independent bookshops seemed like an endangered species - first because of the emergence of big box competitors such as Barnes & Noble, and then because of the runaway success of Amazon - something "miraculous" has happened.

Starting in 2009, HBR writes, "after falling for decades, the number of independent bookstores started to rise, climbing 49 percent in the next decade to nearly 2,500 stores nationwide."

Ryan Raffaelli, a professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School, tells HBR that there are lessons in the resurgence for other retail sectors under threat. It all comes down to three factors, he says: Community, Curation, and Convening.

Some specifics:

• "Community: As longtime community stalwarts, bookstores have been at the vanguard of the 'buy local' movement, pioneering events such as Small-Business Saturday, and making their customers feel virtuous about spending money in their own neighborhoods … The notion goes beyond a bond with customers to include other important community actors, such as schools, chambers of commerce, and civic organizations, reinforcing the social fabric and engendering a strong sense of customer and community loyalty."

• "Curation: Despite the increasing sophistication of online algorithms, online platforms have been unable to replicate the knowledge and passion of indie bookstore employees, says Raffaelli … By contrast, he says, Amazon’s reputation as 'the everything store' can sometimes work against it, overwhelming consumers with too many options and an impersonal experience."

• "Convening: Indie bookstores are increasingly serving as points for convening, expanding beyond author events to host book groups, children’s story hours, birthday parties, music events, knitting circles, culinary demonstrations, and other events … bookstore owners are increasingly seeing their competition not as Barnes & Noble, but as Netflix and other entertainment apps that tie people to their couches."
KC's View:
The independent bookshops that I like most, that I think are most effective, are the ones that are most targeted. Like mystery bookshops, for example, which would be my favorite. I love going through the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, or The Poison Pen in Scottsdale. I'm less enamored of small independents that have a little bit of a lot, but not a ton of focus. (That may just be me. And it certainly doesn't apply to my favorite independent, Powell's in Portland, Oregon, which is enormous and delightful.)

But the sense of focus and curation is, to me, the most applicable lesson for other kinds of retail. It takes stores beyond the simple role of being a source of product, and into the more nuanced role of being as resource for the shopper. Which is the best place to be, I think.