Indie Bookstores Aren't Dead -- They're Making A Comeback

For avid readers, a bookstore is as much part of the social fabric of the community as is an old-fashioned town square or a beloved park.
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"The Death of the Independent Bookstore?"; "Is the Bookstore Dead?"; "Why Bookstores are Doomed": those headlines are from Slate (2006), Jewish Journal (2011), and Business Insider (2013). For years, journalists have made these types of predictions about the death of independent bookstores: if the chains didn't crush them, Amazon would. If Amazon didn't, they would die anyway because people just weren't reading.

For a few years, facts on the ground seemed to support this dire prognosis. During the early years of the new millennium, bookstore after bookstore closed in some of the most reading-friendly cities in America: the Madison Avenue Bookshop in Manhattan (2002), The Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Greenwich Village (2003), Wordsworth's in Cambridge, Mass. (2004), Cody's Books, Berkeley, Calif. (2006). "Every month, it seems, another landmark independent bookstore closes its doors," remarked a contributor to Poets & Writers in 2009.

But around the time of that lament, a sea change occurred. Bookshops continued to close, but others began to open. In 2009, the number of independent bookstores in the nation stabilized at around 1,400, and then slowly began to grow. As of last May, the number of indie bookshops in the U.S. was 1,664.

Why the turnaround? Part of the reason was the long, slow implosion of one of indie bookselling's biggest competitors: Borders went heavily into CDs and DVDs only to find itself competing with iTunes, and then outsourced its online bookselling to Amazon. The company's last profitable year was 2006. It filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

Other factors, such as the buy-local movement and an increase in reading among adult Americans, have helped as well. But the biggest reason independent bookstores are still around is that the store closures of the previous decade alerted people to what they were in danger of losing. Author Ann Patchett wrote that when the last two bookstores in her hometown of Nashville closed, "The Nashville Public Library organized community forums for concerned citizens to come together and discuss how we might get a bookstore again." When I first read that passage two years ago, I was struck by the public reaction. A community wouldn't respond like this to the loss of just any business.

That's because books, by their very nature, are communal. Reading itself may seem a solitary act, but when we read a book we open ourselves up to the mind of another person, to his or her ideas, to the stories this writer has to tell. And when a book is good, people want to talk about it. Therefore, bookstores themselves are social spaces. Often when I go into a bookstore I notice people animatedly talking in a way they don't in any other type of shop. For avid readers, a bookstore is as much part of the social fabric of the community as is an old-fashioned town square or a beloved park.

For the past year I've been talking to bookstore owners around the country, and it's clear that although bookstores are businesses, a good bookstore is never just a business.

Matthew Norcross owns McLean and Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan, a summer resort town with a permanent population of 5,000 people. He cites the advantage of living in a "very literate community attuned to the need to buy locally." But it's also clear that his love of books is contagious, and that's made McLean and Eakin a very special place.

Many of the town's vacationers become year-round customers. "We do more online selling than ever before," Norcross says, adding that shopping at McLean and Eakin becomes a habit that spans not only the seasons but also generations. "I see customers I first saw as kids in our children's section bringing in their own kids."

And that love of the store has a ripple effect.. "One time a woman came in mid-September," Norcross told me, "and said, 'I had to come here because one of my students came back from summer break and now he's a reader, and I had to see this place that made this kid who hated reading into a reader.'"

Like other successful bookstores, McLean and Eakin has also become a venue for literary events. Norcross and his staff bring authors to northern Michigan to do readings, hosting local book clubs as well as internationally known events such as the roving book lovers' retreat Booktopia.

John Evans, the owner and founder of Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, echoed Norcross' sense of bookstores as a place that matters to people. He founded Lemuria in 1975, back when "you had to hunt down books and hunt down records; you couldn't just look stuff up." He says his store has survived the "super-storing of America" and the "Amazon-ing of America" because it's a place where people want to be.

"The customers who have stuck with me feel like they're part of the store," Evans said. "It's not really my store, it's their store. It's a business, but hopefully it's a meaningful part of their lives."

And what helps make Lemuria a place where people want to be? Not only its collection of books, also its knowledgeable staff. " I have to figure out what books I need to buy to support the good books that don't sell very often. That's the only way we can have a good bookstore, and that's one of the ways we compete with Amazon. "You come in and explore and prospect and hopefully find something to read you didn't know you wanted to read. That's the magic of it."

As a veteran bookseller, Evans was eminently established and experienced when the funeral bells began to toll for the independents. But when David Sandberg and Dina Mardell bought Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., in 2013, the conventional wisdom was still against the indies.

If you ask Sandberg why he and his partner decided to buy Porter Square Books when it went on the market, he'll admit it was on impulse.

"We bought it without a particular rationale. We thought [running a bookstore] would be a great thing to do, even though we had never thought about it before. We just did it."

But he doesn't regret the decision. "We love owning a bookstore," he says.

It's obvious to Sandberg that the store provides people with more than just a way to buy a book: "The previous owners and their staff created a community. And the customers appreciate the expertise of the people who work here. They like knowing someone is going to help them, and that's hard to do in an online environment."

As for the business end? "The store's never had a year when sales have gone down."

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