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Bookshop.org earns more than $1 million for indie bookstores

Bookshop.org earned more than $1 million that it will distribute to struggling indie bookshops such as the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, pictured.
Bookshop.org earned more than $1 million that it will distribute to struggling indie bookshops such as the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, pictured.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

In the wee hours of Monday morning, Bookshop.org — an online bookseller whose goal is to offer financial support to independent bookstores — earned $1 million for local bookstores across the country struggling to survive during the pandemic. Earlier this month, Bookshop partnered with Simon & Schuster in a campaign to bolster those efforts.

As of Wednesday morning, the digital bookstore had earned $1,072,126, a massive jump from the $10,000 raised in its first month of operations, before the coronavirus outbreak forced bookstores to close their doors.

"[This milestone] means that we’re accomplishing our mission of being a real meaningful support for independent bookstores,” said Andy Hunter, Bookshop’s founder and CEO. “We’re exceedingly pleased with how much we’ve been able to earn for the stores, and many stores are also grateful.”

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Bookshop, a Certified B corporation, was launched in January with a mission to help indie bookstores, which for years fought to compete with chains like Barnes & Noble and then the online retail giant Amazon. “Our goal is to take the conscious consumers away from Amazon and put them in a channel that supports local independent businesses and keeps bookstores in their communities,” said Hunter, which “are really essential to our cultural fabric when it comes to books.” Customers can choose to purchase from a specific indie bookstore affiliated with Bookshop or buy directly from the site.

But Hunter doesn’t expect to beat the e-commerce behemoth — only to help its competitors survive. “I expect Amazon will continue to sell more books than us for all eternity. We’re not trying to sell more books than them, but we are trying to get customers who care about their downtowns, their quality of life and the world that they want to live in to make a switch.”

As challenging as the retail environment was for booksellers, the coronavirus presented an existential crisis.

Author James Patterson is donating $500,000 to help indie bookstores across the country. For many L.A. booksellers, that could be a life saver.

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Strict no-gathering and safer-at-home orders forced nonessential businesses to close their physical shops indefinitely to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Some have turned to Bookshop to keep their businesses running.

Indie stores that sell through Bookshop.org get 30% of every sale. Affiliate stores that send in referrals also get a 10% commission, compared with Amazon’s 4.5%. And for every sale made directly on Bookshop or through a referral, 10% is added to an earnings pool that is then distributed to indie bookstores every six months.The online platform also has media affiliates, Hunter said, including the New York Times, Slate and BuzzFeed. Non-affiliates can still sign up to benefit from the earnings pool.

For Chevalier’s Books in Hancock Park, Bookshop — the store’s only online sales platform — has been a lifesaver. “We’re a tiny bookstore with a tiny staff, so creating an online platform for customers was just never in the schedule,” said assistant manager Theresa Le Phung. “But now with Bookshop it feels like we’ve finally caught up.

“I think I speak for all booksellers when I say the most frustrating thing to hear from a customer is, ‘Oh, I’ll just get it on Amazon,’” she added. “It is tremendously satisfying to now be able to say, ‘Try Bookshop instead.’”

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Julia Cowlishaw, CEO of Vroman’s and Book Soup, echoed that sentiment in an email. “Bookshop was a much-needed innovation and the timing couldn’t have been better, especially for stores without a website,” she said. “Shopping directly with a bookstore is still the best option for store sustainability but Bookshop has provided an option when there wasn’t one for many stores, and that’s a step in the right direction.”

Though the $1-million mark was more pleasing than surprising for Hunter, it felt like validation. “I spent two years trying to get people excited about this idea, and fund it and build it. ... I always thought it would work but most people didn’t agree with me,” he said, laughing. “But I always believed in it.”

Hunter acknowledges that Bookshop’s sales will drop when stores are able to reopen. “We welcome that day,” he said. “We don’t want to hold on to those sales. We want those sales to go back into the stores because that’s our reason for existing: to help those stores.”


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