There’s A Reason Why Indie Bookstores Are Thriving

For author and new bookstore owner Emma Straub, it’s simple: Books Are Magic!
CoffmanCMU via Getty Images

At the tail end of last year, the New York book community was hit with unsettling news. BookCourt, the independently run store serving Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and readers willing to venture from their own neighborhoods for the sake of author events and stocked shelves, was closing.

For avid readers, the loss of a bookstore leaves a mark. Bookstores ― the brick-and-mortar variety ― foster so many chance encounters and reflective moments; true love of the glue-and-paper sort blossoms among their shelves. And, a shuttered indie doesn’t bode so well for the looming Bezospocalypse, even if their sales are increasing at a steadier-than-average clip compared with non-indie vendors.

But, like magic, the closing of BookCourt coincided with the announcement of another store, to be opened by Emma Straub, author of Modern Lovers, The Vacationers and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. A onetime BookCourt employee and longtime lover of literature, Straub hopes her store will be “salve for the wound.”

She and her husband are still ironing out the details of the lease for their store, Books Are Magic! But, she told The Huffington Post that they’re aiming for a May opening date.

“I understand from all of my friends who own small businesses that things always take longer than you think they should,” Staub said. “But, we’ll see. The goal is May.”

Below, Straub shares her earliest and happiest bookstore memories, and her and her husband’s plans for their future store.

Author Emma Straub.
Author Emma Straub.
Desiree Navarro via Getty Images

When did you decide to open Books Are Magic!?

The second that we heard that BookCourt was closing. Which was mid-October. We found out earlier than most of the public in the neighborhood. Immediately, we thought, no, no, this can’t happen. We live a few blocks away from BookCourt, and we’re there, I would say, three or four times a week. I truly couldn’t fathom the notion that we would live in a neighborhood without an independent bookstore.

We know ― oh, yeah, this is our job to fix. So, we’re working on it.

In your announcement you highlight the importance of a bookstore to a community or neighborhood. How, in your experience, have bookstores played that role?

I work from home, and for me a bookstore is a place that I can always go. It’s a place I can go to find new ideas, and see old friends, and to read a poem, and to pick up a picture book for one of my children, and to buy a gift. Books are the only presents that always fit. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a book and thought, oh, god, this is just, the wrong thing.

Even when I don’t buy something, I always fondle a lot of things. As a writer, bookstores have been enormously important to me. BookCourt in particular, but also other independent bookstores across the country. There’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like a bookstore. It falls in a certain in-between space, between public space and private space. Bookstores always feel intimate but welcoming. I think they’re important and necessary for people like me who have small children, and where it’s not always warm outside. It’s nice to have a place to go.

“There’s nothing like a bookstore. It falls in a certain in-between space, between public space and private space. Bookstores always feel intimate but welcoming.”

You’ve already touched on this, but what do you think physical bookstores offer that, say, an online bookstore doesn’t?

Oh, discoverability. Discoverability, expertise. I think algorithms are great, and sometimes helpful when you’re buying something and it suggests that you also buy batteries or whatever, but it doesn’t really work with books. It really doesn’t. An algorithm is never going to replace a human being saying, “Oh, that’s interesting, you like Ann Patchett and Meg Wolitzer but you’ve never read Maile Meloy? Oh my god, you’re in for such a treat!” There are so many things like that that happen every day in every bookstore.

Also, just the feeling of wandering. Actually, I have this problem a lot when it comes to music. I don’t listen to CDs anymore, because my husband is more technologically advanced than I am. He has his music very well organized, and on his cloud-whatever, but I no longer get to flip through my music to see what I have. I’ve forgotten what I like to listen to. I can’t remember anything if I can’t see it. And that’s how I feel about bookstores. When you walk through a bookstore, you’re reminded of things that you love, and you see a cover that looks amazing, of a book you’ve never heard of by a person you’ve never heard of, and you pick it up and you flip it over and you read what it’s about and maybe you buy it. And that doesn’t really happen online. You can’t just fall into something. You can’t pick a book off the shelf and read the first five pages of it and know that you’re going to fall in love. Or, you can’t pick up a book that everyone else has read and loved, and read the first page and know that it’s garbage and that you don’t want to read it.

You worked at BookCourt. What do you hope to emulate about that store, with your store? And is there anything you’d like to change, or anything new you’d like to try?

What’s most important to me is to have a space that feels open and welcoming, and comfortable. That’s the number-one thing.

I think BookCourt did a really beautiful job for 35 years, and I hope to be half as good at it as they were. Luckily I have a lot of friends who run independent bookstores in New York City. In fact, everyone who runs a bookstore in New York City has been so friendly and encouraging to us about this. Christine Onorati, who owns WORD, is one of my dearest friends. Stephanie Valdez and Ezra at the Community Bookstore, Rebecca and Jessica at Greenlight, Maggie Pounzie at Story, a children’s bookstore. Sarah McNally. Every person has been encouraging, and offered their help and expertise. We really feel like we’re not trying to compete with anyone. We are truly just doing this to fill this hole in this neighborhood where we live, that has been served so beautifully by BookCourt for so long. We’re just trying to be a little salve for the wound.

“We were talking about just doing a children’s bookstore. And I just thought, books are magic. Just, books are magic, that’s it, that’s the whole point. And we decided that books are magic for everyone, not just children.”

Where did you come up with the store’s name, Books Are Magic!?

We hadn’t really thought about names very much. We had a few that sounded more like a butcher shop. We were struggling a little bit. And then, we were talking about just doing a children’s bookstore. And I just thought, books are magic. Just, books are magic, that’s it, that’s the whole point. And we decided that books are magic for everyone, not just children.

What’s your earliest bookstore memory?

My earliest bookstore memory is from when I was about 10 years old, and I grew up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan where there used to be this wonderful independent bookstore called Endicot. And Matt Dillon was in the store when I was in the store, and I just followed him around. It was not a big place, and I was not a small 10-year-old, so I doubt I was very inconspicuous. So that’s my earliest bookstore memory, if I’m being 100 percent honest. So, it started with a dreamboat.

Working at BookCourt was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I think what made it so fun for me was that I knew every day I went in there I was going to have conversations with smart, interesting people. That is, the other booksellers, the owners, and the customers. That’s what I really loved about it. There was always someone to talk to, and they always had something to say about a book. And what more would you want, really?


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