The Front Table, Online

December 29, 2008 | 5 2 min read

I have written in the past about the importance of a bookstore’s “front table.”

The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.

To me, this epitomizes what separates the engaging indie from the faceless chain, but this selling point has not helped indies win out in a climate that has been tough for all book retailers. Among the many struggles indies have faced is how to translate the relevance and ambiance described above to the internet, where a large portion of book buying, selling, and discussion now takes place.

2008’s launch of IndieBound, an aggregated indie web presence that is a vast improvement over its precursor BookSense, shows that the indies are hard at work trying to unlock the online conundrum.

Recently, Scott pointed to another far smaller but particularly resonant example of online experimentation by an indie bookstore. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago has started replicating its front table on its blog. This book curation done by a knowledgeable staff rather than the chains’ corporate number crunchers, fulfills the bookstore mission that I noted above, giving readers “what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.” (This notion of curation is important. In many ways, I’d argue that it’s a key mission of The Millions. Our “staff” selects and sheds light upon certain books at the exclusion of others, bringing to bear our different areas of expertise, interest, and taste.)

The front table alone, however, is not enough to make a bookstore. A truly great bookstore and its front table will inspire conversation in the aisles among patrons and staff. Seminary Co-op is part of the way towards making its front table live on its web site, but, as the “comments are closed” message at the bottom of the page indicates, it’s not all the way there. However, the sight of all those covers, laid out neatly, makes me think that we may not be far from an indie bookstore website that makes you feel like you are walking into the store itself.

See also: Niche Bookstores: A Dying Breed, Islands in the Stream: A Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. I grew up in a town with no real bookstore, let alone an indie one. I used to have nightmares that by the time I got to be an adult and could buy books whenever I wanted, there would be no bookstores left. I don't think we've gone that far, but I do hope indie bookstores are at least able to flourish online.

  2. I would agree that this concept is quite foreign to me. We have a used bookstore, and the university store, but I don't know if I've ever been in an indie bookstore. I don't know where any are located. I live in rural Missouri and buy my books almost exclusively from If it weren't for the internet, I doubt I would find a way to buy many new books at all.

  3. And what about the tables at the chains, where the spots are largely paid for by the publisher? Certainly there is still something to the front table– what the publishers think will sell, what the publishers have great hopes for– but I think it's not the case that the curating is all up to the store itself, if at all.

  4. I am a co-owner of an independent bookstore. I had to respond to meg89, specifically to say that an indie bookstore is any store that is locally and independently owned, not part of a large corporate chain. your university bookstore might be an indie, many are. used bookstores count, too! you can find stores near you here:
    also, there are plenty of indies selling books online who are forced to compete with the behemoth that is amazon. why not try
    thanks for listening.

  5. @Emma – that's one big reason why indies are so much better than chains. Every single thing about the books the chains promote was paid for. Front table, end cap, face out, "staff picks" – paid for. Not so in the indies. There's real value in that kind of honest relationship between the reader and bookseller that you can't get at a chain.

    Oh, and web placement at Amazon and the chains is also paid for. Go indies!

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