How Indie Bookstores Fought Their Way Back

Independent bookstores have battled their way back to the top of the heap. Most people love an underdog, and the indies are the Rocky to the book chains’ Apollo Creed. According to the American Booksellers Association, 111 indie bookstores opened in 2019. So how did this indie boom happen in the age of multi-floor bookstore chains and Amazon’s 2-day shipping?

A 2019 article in The New York Times suggests that the reason for this indie bookshop resurgence is pretty simple: they’ve become part of their local community in a way that big companies couldn’t. The NYT quotes Oren Teicher, the chief executive of the ABA, writing, “The thing that distinguishes indie bookstores is the engagement with the community they are in.”

In the last few years, consumers have begun to embrace The Buy Local movement; among many other benefits, supporting a local business often means less transportation of goods, better quality of service, and investing in businesses owned and staffed by friends and neighbors. In a world of increased digitization and algorithm-centric marketing, shoppers have come to appreciate the personal touch of buying from a smaller business.

WBUR On Point interviewed Ryan Raffaelli, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. His opinion echoed that of Teicher as he explained, “…rather than trying to compete with Amazon on unlimited inventory and price, they actually think about … curat[ing], an inventory of books and other articles that are very specific to the individual’s taste, often linked to the tastes of those in the community.” Danielle Mullen, the proprietress of Chicago’s Semicolon Bookstore and Gallery, wants to use her business to encourage a love of reading: “I curate our book collection based on books I feel have the power to turn a non-reader into an avid one.” It has worked and the store has become a hub for the neighborhood. “I think the most powerful testament to the community enjoyment of the space is the fact that every employee we have started as a customer. We have such great debates and conversations in-store and it makes people more interested in what we’re trying to accomplish as a small business. It’s amazing to have people who truly love the space as employees.”

Received image from owner Danielle Mullen

In the UK, a new LGBT+ bookshop opened in 2019 — York’s The Portal Bookshop. Owner Lali Hewitson explained the importance of community loyalty, pointing out her shop is one of “only three existing LGBT+ bookshops in the UK — though there have been many that have come and gone in the years since [London-based queer bookshop] Gay’s The Word blazed the rainbow trail. I’m frequently overwhelmed with how many people love [The Portal] so much already, and how much of an impact it has when someone walks through the door and sees their flag up on the wall.”

The Dallas-based Poets Oak Cliff had a similarly community-oriented goal in mind when they opened. Owned by Kelsi Cavazos, Marco Cavazos, and Russ Hargraves, it’s a hybrid bookshop-slash-writing studio. According to Cavazos, “We want to be a neighborhood bookshop and a place for writers to gather and get creative. Once things go back to normal, we’re planning to add a ‘Soap Box Night.’ Think open-mic without a PA.” There are even working typewriters on hand for customers, and they’ve been popular so far.

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The indies can also focus on serving typically underserved communities: The Portal Bookshop has an LGBTQ+ focus while Love’s Sweet Arrow skewers romance titles. In Easton, Pennsylvania, family-owned Book and Puppet provides children’s books and programming. Love’s Sweet Arrow in Tinley Park, Illinois is also a family business; mother-daughter Roseann and Marissa have opened the second of only two romance-specific bookshops in the US. According to Marissa, the appeal of specializing in romance is that “[it] is a genre that guarantees a happy ending (whether it’s for ever or for now) and it’s comforting because readers know what to ultimately expect.”

It is in times like this uneasy present that happy endings and comfort reads are especially valuable, reminding readers that they aren’t alone and taking us away from our overwhelmed heads and into the world.

A note about supporting the industry during COVID-19: many indie bookstores are still providing online orders and door delivery (Glasgow’s Category Is Books via skateboard, apparently) so it is possible to still support your fave indies through this. Some are selling books via their own websites, others, like The Bronx’s Lit.Bar are selling through Bookshop. You can also support America-based indies through the Save Indie Bookstores campaign; read more about it and/or donate here.