With many independent bookstore owners facing the most dire financial crisis in their lifetimes, the American Booksellers Association has teamed with an award-winning advertising agency known for “culture hacking” to dramatize the threats of the pandemic and the growing dominance of Amazon.com.
On Tuesday, the trade group launched the “Boxed Out” campaign, for which a handful of bookstores around the country will have windows boarded up and boxes piled up out front that resemble Amazon delivery containers, with one label reading “Don’t Accept Amazon’s Brave New World.” The beginning of what the booksellers association hopes will be a conversation in stores and online, “Boxed Out” was designed by DCX Growth Accelerator, a Brooklyn-based firm which attracted national attention in 2018 when it set up a fake “Palessi” luxury shoe store and stocked it with items from the Payless discount chain.
“Boxed Out” coincides with Amazon Prime Day, when the online giant offers special deals to its members.
“We’re hoping that people will understand the juxtaposition and support their local stores,” says booksellers association CEO Allison Hill.
Independent booksellers had enjoyed a resurgence over the past decade after being devastated in the 20 previous years by the rise of the superstore chains Barnes & Noble and Borders, and then the emergence of Amazon. ABA membership, once more than 5,000, was down to just 1,401 in 2009 during the height of the Great Recession and was apparently set to keep declining as e-books began to catch on.
But the digital revolution stalled, Borders went out of business and Barnes & Noble retreated after a long era of expansion. In 2019, the last time the ABA released yearly numbers, membership was up to 1,887, with some sellers even opening additional outlets. Hill’s predecessor, Oren Teicher, who retired at the end of 2019, received an honorary National Book Award earlier that year for his success in “working to strengthen and expand independent bookstores nationwide.”
But the pandemic could wipe out all the gains since 2009. An ABA survey from this summer found that some 20 percent of members could go out of business, meaning hundreds of stores face closure, especially as government aid runs out. Meanwhile, the number of new independent stores opening has dropped sharply, according to the ABA, just 30 this year compared to 104 in 2019.
While the overall market for books has been surprisingly solid in 2020, Amazon.com has apparently fared best as the public increasingly makes purchases online. According to a report issued last week by the antitrust subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, “Amazon accounts for over half of all print book sales and over 80% of e-book sales” in the U.S. market.
Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn is among the participating stores in “Boxed Out.” Co-owner Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo says that sales have fallen this year by double digits after a decade of “steady growth.” Her store has risen from its “deepest trough” earlier this year, and has rehired some laid off workers, but Stockton-Bagnulo says Greenlight’s position is still “precarious.”
“If shoppers could shift more of their purchasing away from Amazon to local businesses like ours … it could make all the difference in allowing us to survive and thrive for years to come. We hope Boxed Out will have that effect,” she said.
Hill said she and the booksellers association had been looking for a way to draw attention to what indies were going through and met with several agencies before deciding on DCX. Not all of DCX projects have had long-term impact. Payless, for instance, continued to struggle after the Palessi campaign, filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and closed all of its U.S. stores.
Hill said she was more impressed by a campaign from 2015 on behalf of Jesse’s bodega in Brooklyn, near the headquarters of DCX. Owner Jesse Itayim faced eviction after the landlord sought a 250 percent rent hike, so DCX devised an “Artisanal Landlord Price Hike Sale” that featured exorbitant costs for such rebranded items as “Grass Fed Himalayan Tuna Salad.”
Jesse’s held on another year before shutting down.
“I just liked how they did it with a sense of humor,” Hill says of DCX. “I think things are different now and that we’re at the beginning of a sea change. I think people realize how fragile we are because of the pandemic, and my hope of this campaign is that it’s the beginning of a conversation.”