When Borders set up shop in Overland Park, Kansas, in the early 1990s, my fellow writers and I mourned for what we believed was the impending doom of our local bookstores. Some of us had relatives who ran local stores, and those shopkeepers told us they could never compete with the mega-store on price or selection of books. And for years it seemed they were right. One by one the local bookstores dropped out of existence. Things looked even bleaker a few years later when Amazon.com burst onto the Internet and began sucking up the book business. But today, the future of independent bookstores has taken on a whole new shine. Articles in prestigious publications including Time, Forbes, Salon, and The New York Times herald the news that indie bookstores are not dead. And the truth is, they’re right.
Statistics from the American Booksellers Association show that the number of independent bookstores is on the rise. In an article last month, Time noted that in 2015 the number of the association’s member stores increased from 1,712 to 1,775. The New York Times reported a 27 percent increase in independent bookstores between 2009 and 2015. And growing interest in starting new stores is clear from the number of participants in the most recent “Bookstore Boot Camp,” run by the Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates and co-sponsored by the American Booksellers Association. According to a report on Shelf Awareness, it was the largest class in the last 12 years.
So the numbers are there. But just as telling are the things individuals say about independent bookstores and why they like them. Author Ann Patchett, who is a co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, gets to the heart of the matter on the Parnassus Books website: “The bookstore of my youth was Mills. Mills could not have been more than 700 square feet, and the people who worked there remembered who you were and what you read, even if you were 10.”
She goes on to say Mills was “a store that recognized it could not possibly stock every single book that every single person might be looking for, and so stocked the books the staff had read and liked and could recommend.”
These are characteristics that are winning customers back to the indie bookstores. A staff member’s personal recommendation of a book means a lot more than any suggestion kicked out by an algorithm. Also, it’s a lot more fun to browse the shelves for a book that catches your eye, and then hold it in your hands while you flip through a few pages, than to see an image of it on a computer screen. And if you’re holding a book in your hands, it’s very easy to strike up a conversation with other customers, so the bookstore often become a meeting place, which creates its own kind of welcoming atmosphere.
The Internet does have a role to play, however, in the resurgence of independent bookstores. Online information makes it easy to find where these stores are located. Readers are using social media to talk about local bookstores and recommend them to each other.
One of my favorite reasons for shopping at independent bookstores is they aren’t bound by corporate rules and therefore have the freedom to be more supportive of local authors. The independent bookstore closest to my home is The Annapolis Bookstore. When I approached Mary Adams, a co-owner of the store, about hosting the launch of my debut novel Surface and Shadow, her face lit up and she appeared to be as happy about the event as I was. And so we set about making plans to introduce Surface and Shadow at a gathering featuring reading, refreshments, conversation, and celebration. Not only would we celebrate my novel, but also the bookstore’s grand reopening at a new space several blocks down the street from the old one.
When it came to advertising the launch, Mary was very supportive. I offered her a poster I had had designed and printed to draw attention to Surface and Shadow, and she immediately put in the store window. It looked great.
By the time you read this post, we’ll have done our celebrating the night before on Sept. 9. I have no doubt it will be a fun affair, and I hope it will draw a good crowd—not just for me and my book, but because I want people to see this charming new space that houses The Annapolis Bookstore and feel the warm and friendly atmosphere. I hope everyone buys a copy of Surface and Shadow, but I know Mary will be able to recommend other books, too, because that’s one of the joys of independent bookstores.
Thank goodness they’re still around.