Independent book stores are thriving in NJ. But how?
Super Bowl champion Nick Foles, television personality Al Roker and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich are just a sample of the big names headed to Bookends in Ridgewood this month and next.
The independent bookstore hosts 120 to 150 author events a year. And with each event comes a crowd.
"Like any business, you have to figure out a way to differentiate yourself from the chains and from the online experience, and that's worked well for us for the last 16 years," said owner Walter Boyer.
For shops like Boyer's, both in New Jersey and nationwide, the story is nowhere near its end, despite mounting competition. Independent shops have stood their ground — actually, they've thrived, growing in numbers by more than a third between 2009 and 2015.
"Bookstores continue to be a great pulse of the community, a great meeting-gathering place," Boyer said.
Year-over-year revenue increases have been realized by the owners of Words Bookstore in Maplewood each year since opening in 2009, just as the nation was pulling out of a recession.
Business has been so good, Jonah Zimiles and his wife are opening a second branch in Livingston as soon as the building is ready.
"People in our community believe in shopping local and supporting the local businesses," Zimiles said.
Success comes with thinking outside the traditional business model. Maribeth Pelly, event planner for BookTowne in Manasquan, said the shop has been "hustling as much as it can to grab market share."
Over the holiday season, BookTowne launched a subscription book service for those who live in and out of the area. Each month, a paperback novel is delivered to customers' doors.
According to Pelly, customers have walked into the shop with Amazon cued up on their phone. They could order the book with just a click, but they've traveled to the store to see if it's in stock on the shelves.
"We have built up a great reputation," Pelly said. "The community relies on us just for a good reference, a good experience to have a dialogue about a topic or a gift."
There's something special about the in-store experience of a tiny bookstore, owners say. From the scent of new releases, to getting assisted by people who actually care about the industry, it's an experience you can't duplicate online.
In Bernardsville, staff of The Bookworm stick notes into the books they've read, offering future customers a personal review.
Like other independent shops, The Bookworm also counts on non-book items — such as cards and socks — to maximize profits.
Owner Mary Ann Donaghy said the amount of foot traffic can vary greatly from day to day.
"Thank God it's enough to keep us in business without worrying too much," Donaghy said. "But it does keep us on our toes."