LENOX — Always on the lookout for something cheerful to lift my spirits during this unsettling holiday season, I was fortunate to come across a new study showing that book reading (For pleasure! In print!) is making a most welcome comeback.
We have only a handful of booksellers in the area, including the venerable Lenox emporium known simply as The Bookstore, under the loving care of proprietor Matt Tannenbaum for 41 years.
But I feared for its future, not so much from Barnes & Noble, the sole surviving big-box chain facing its own challenges, but primarily from Amazon, which discounts many new titles by 30 to 50 percent. Also, E-books via Kindle, the Nook and tablets seem to be replacing printed books for many people.
Then I saw a report from the American Booksellers Association showing that from 2009 to 2015, the number of independent bookstores increased from 1,651 to 2,227 nationwide — a dramatic reversal from the 1995 to 2000 trend, when the number of those stores fell off a cliff by 43 percent.
Now, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School has come out with a preliminary summary of his academic study on how neighborhood bookstores have carved out an indispensable niche in local communities.
As reported by Ryan Raffaelli on the school's website, independent booksellers are thriving once again because they're focusing on their localities, "winning customers back by stressing a strong connection to community values."
Those proprietors are curating their inventory to provide "a more personal and specialized customer experience," Raffaelli stated. "Rather than only recommending bestsellers," he wrote, "they developed personal relationships with customers by helping them discover up-and-coming authors and unexpected titles."
He also lauded indie booksellers for positioning their stores "as intellectual centers for convening customers with like-minded interests — offering lectures, book signings, game nights, children's story times, young adult reading groups, even birthday parties. In fact, some bookstores now host over 500 events a year that bring people together."
There's also an enterprising spirit — Tannenbaum created a "Get Lit" wine bar in his Lenox store and stepped up the number of readings by authors, some local, others visiting the Berkshires.
"We don't think of them as booksellers anymore; they're literary entrepreneurs," Raffaelli explained. "I think that's an important distinction."
As an academician, Raffaelli came up with an appropriately long-winded title for his study due for release in a few months: "Reframing Collective Identity in Response to Multiple Technological Discontinuities: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores."
His field trips were extensive — more than 200 interviews and focus groups with bookstore owners, publishers and prominent authors; visits to dozens of bookstores in 13 states; attendance at a training course on how to open an independent bookstore.
Summing up his work so far, Raffaelli wrote: "The theoretical and managerial lessons we can learn from independent bookstores have implications for a wide array of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses facing technological change. But this has been an especially fascinating industry to study because indie booksellers provide us with a story of hope."
With print book sales on the rise and e-books fading, those of us who revel in an hour or more of bedtime reading with all electronic distractions switched off can feel a sense of relief. Long live books, magazines and, yes, newspapers in print, to have and to hold as a treasured symbol, not a relic or artifact, of enduring civilization.
Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter, @BE_CFanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.