Independent Bookstore Fights as The Under Dog of Retail

A look at the challenge’s independent bookstore, White Whale bookstore, faces beyond the fear of online retailers and the declaration of a global pandemic.

Adlai Yeomans has turned a love for literature into an everyday career and a community hub for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Yeomans, co-owner and manager, owns a favored independent bookstore, White Whale bookstore. Yeomans transformed the store five years ago into the inclusive and fresh space it remains today while battling growing online competitors, big-name brick and mortar stores, and the "new normal" of society today. 

Former local New Hampshire resident, Yeomans followed his love for books after college working creatively at a publishing house in New York, through editorial. “Bookstores have always been one of the important things in my life, wherever you’re living it’s like where’s the closest bookstore,” Yeomans expressed.

In New York, the aspiring editor met his business partner and now loving wife in which they took their dreams to Pennsylvania and stumbled across the rising opportunity to buy a former older indie store. "I've always been a book person. I've always loved writing and reading," Yeomans shared. 

"The things you need to do daily to be successful now have much bigger skill sets than people think," expressed Yeomans when explaining the challenges of owning an indie bookstore. “Handselling is of course important and the most fun, but a huge part of what we do now is our marketing,” Yeomans shared as the store started from the ground up and is faced with small margins for profit. 

Loyal customers appreciate independent bookstores for their old charm and serene environment. Customers favor indie bookstores for their immersion in community events and their unique shopping and browsing spaces. The charm of these stores offers the consumer more than just book shopping but a real connection with someone who shares the same passion and knowledge of literature. Indie bookstores are credited for their hard work to stay open and increase revenue as they face online relators and big-name local competitors such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

When asked about battling big-name competitors, Yeomans expressed meeting the customers' literary needs as a contributing factor to indie bookstore success. "In general, they kind of have their own cliental. Independent bookstores, the real value we have as a space is, we are more personal and community focus. Our strongest thing we do is curation. We spend a lot of time reading through the thousands and thousands of books that come out every year and we chose the titles we want to focus on and want to highlight," Yeomans shared in light of the charm of indie bookstores. 

Building a consumer base is an ongoing process as competitors emerge and societal values shift. Social media has become a growing platform for bookstores to use to interact with their target audience. Yeomans expresses Instagram as the best social media tool bookstores have, as a lot of time and energy goes toward social media outreach, marketing streams, events, and working closely with publishers. 

With the global pandemic declaration, priorities and safety measures shifted across all businesses and community involvement worldwide. Yeomans touched upon the 20 events held in-store, generating 30 percent of revenue prior to the shift to about ten or less now held virtually. Many of those events include virtual readings of poetry and guest authors from across the country. This weeks’ upcoming event is a virtual reading of the poem Perigee by Diane Kerr, featuring Gail Langstroth, Valeria Bacharach, and Celeste Gainey. "Before you're either a local author or an author on tour. But since touring isn't a thing anymore, virtual events have enabled us to do wonderful pairings with authors all over the world but also from some great independent presses," Yeomans expressed as the switch to virtual events isn't entirely deconstructive for White Whale bookstore. 

While the pandemic is temporary, of course, Yeomans dreams for this indie store are already being made into a reality. Taking immediate action in the community, the store has held many readings, specifically during the summer season, where the store kicked off the events with donations to the BLM movement. “Our selection is as diverse as possible, we focus more on underrepresented writers, topics, and voices. We have really large selection of LGBTQ writers, BIPOC authors and topics,” Yeomans expressed as ways the store further emerges in community involvement. Yeomans conveyed that through this greater representation, the store aims to be a safe space for all writers and shoppers.

The store hopes to expand beyond book sales by buying and transforming a neighboring space that became available just last year. Yeomans plans to convert the space and merge with the existing storefront to feature a coffee shop experience while shopping in-store. Even bigger conversations have surfaced about starting a nonprofit to go alongside the store's involvement in the community. The small staff featured on the indie bookstore website go beyond book sales, offering their own recommendations and favorites for shoppers to try. Some of those picks include LusterRed at the BoneNothing to See Here, and Interior Chinatown.  "We have a lovely, brilliant staff always brainstorming about ways to interact with the community and help out the literary community here," Yeomans expressed excitingly as he is hopeful for the future.

With limited guest capacity, social distancing practices, and mask-wearing requirements, the White Whale bookstore remains open for in-store and online purchases alongside virtual events and workshops. The store will continue to act as a safe space for every individual. "People talk about the idea of the third space. Your home, work, and space you feel comfortable and spend time in. And that's what we try to be," Yeomans expressed with the stores' active involvement in both community and the world of literature.

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