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Between 2009 and 2015, more than 570 independent bookstores opened in the U.S., bringing the total to more than 2,200; that’s about a 35 percent jump after more than a decade of decline. The surprise recovery may hold lessons for other small retailers. Stores like Anderson’s are helping Harvard Business School professor Ryan Raffaelli solve an economic mystery. “I often say, these are stories of hope,” Raffaelli laughed.

Think about watches. Originally watches were mechanical devices that required winding, etc. Then the quartz watch came along and replaced the mechanical movement of the watch with an electronic one. Quartz watches – cheap, accurate, and no-wind – took over the market. Many old line watch makers fell on hard times. Then mechanical watches became the luxury item, with connoisseurs scoffing at quartz watches. There’s a thriving luxury watch industry to this day.

I expect the same thing to happen with print. It was cool to get your information online when that was cutting edge. Now that everyone does it, hip folks want the print edition. We’ve seen a proliferation of high end, niche glossy magazines, for example.

5) The bookworms and some of the trendies drift back to surviving and newly opened indies, which have room to breathe again, though there will never be as many as at Stage 1. The casual herd has moved on – increasingly they don’t read books at all or get them from non-bookstores – so there’s no incentive for large, highly-capitalized players to run competing megastores.

You can see the same pattern in watches – everyone had to buy clockwork watches because that’s all there was, then the money and momentum shifted to digital watches, now most people use their cellphones but most watch buyers wear traditional watches. Or for records – they were crushed by CDs in the arms race for a more convenient format, then people stopped buying physically-stored songs in LP configuration altogether, and records made a modest comeback because people who like buying their music in a store prefer records.

In all of these examples, Version 2 was similar enough to Version 1 that consumers saw it as an evolutionary improvement and switched in large enough numbers to suffocate 1. But Version 3 put even greater pressure on 2 for convenience and modernism, while being far enough removed from the Version 1 experience that 1 and 3 aren’t even really in direct competition. The intermediary mass-market version is forced out while Version 1 survives among a niche audience removed from the rat race of Versions 3, 4, 5…

This being an urbanist blog, you can see the same pattern in the waves of urban/suburban development. Inner-ring suburbs were considered better than the central city in their time, but they can’t compete with newer suburbs with bigger houses and better traffic circulation, while traditional urban environments are recognized as offering a completely different set of amenities. 1-2-3

We have an Anderson’s Bookshop (one of the independent bookstores referenced in the news article) in our hometown and it’s a fantastic place. Part of its success has been its ability to turn into a true “third place” for people to congregate. That really is key for any business that relies upon people physically coming to a location that sells products that are otherwise easily found online. The store has book signing events on most evenings with prominent authors across all viewpoints (e.g. it hosted Bernie Sanders and Newt Gingrinch for separate signings during the same week and consistently has big names like President George W. Bush and Anna Kendrick that you would think would be signing at a bookstore in the City of Chicago as opposed to a suburban bookstore) and a fantastic children’s book section (which is critical for any bookstore since that’s the primary category where buyers AKA parents actively seek out physical books as opposed to digital versions). It also has a long history of being ahead of the curve in book tastes – it was one of the first US stores to bring in then-unknown J.K. Rowling and introduce the first Harry Potter book in front of a handful of people locally. (Just think of what those first editions signed by Rowling are worth now.) When Harry Potter became a phenomenon, she returned the favor a few years later by coming back to speak in front of thousands with Anderson’s as the host.

What’s impressive is that Anderson’s has thrived even when its flagship location in downtown Naperville has a full-size multi-level Barnes & Noble only a couple of blocks away. So, it’s not even a matter of there not being local store competition (e.g. places where the closing of Borders left no bookstores) – they created an environment that ingratiated themselves with the local community and it has returned the favor by continuing to support it.