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Cover Story

The novel resurgence of independent bookstores

Defying the onslaught of the e-book revolution, many small bookshops see a rise in sales, aided by savvy business practices and the 'buy local' movement. 

By Yvonne ZippCorrespondent / March 17, 2013

Tammy Heupel (l.) sits with her son, Johann, and Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn. This is the cover story in the Mar. 18 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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kansas city, mo.; and kalamazoo, mich.

Last October, when superstorm Sandy ripped through Connecticut, it flooded Bank Square Books in Mystic. Owner Annie Philbrick recalls walking inside to the smell of the ocean and a soaking wet carpet.

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She and her staff had moved everything as high as they could before the storm, but water and paper are a disastrous combination. With no power to turn on pumps or fans, Ms. Philbrick was in danger of losing her stock of more than 30,000 books.

She put out an update on her Facebook page: We have to get these books out of here or we're going to lose them all. The volunteers started arriving. Philbrick's neighbors and customers helped the staff load 400 packing crates of books – enough to fill two Mayflower moving vans.

After the walls and floors had been repaired, more volunteers showed up to carry the books back inside the store. They loaded cards on spinner racks, dropped off cookies, and cleaned the windows and the floor. A PayPal Sandy Relief Fund raised $7,000 – enough for Philbrick to pay the movers and her staff.

The Heupels – Eric, Tammy, and their 12-year-old son, Johann – arrived to help the shop where Johann has attended "story time" since he was 3. Eric took a day off work to ferry crates, while Tammy and Johann volunteered for a week, alphabetizing and organizing stock.

"We were worried that if it took too long, it would be too damaging to their sales and they might not open at all," says Tammy.

Not to worry. Three weeks after superstorm Sandy, on Nov. 16 at 11 a.m., Bank Square Books reopened for business. "We couldn't have done it without the help of our community," says Philbrick. "It was pretty incredible."

That community support is by no means unique to Bank Square Books, and it may be the secret ingredient behind a quiet resurgence of independent bookstores, which were supposed to go the way of the stone tablet – done in first by the national chains, then Amazon, and then e-books.

A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.

While beloved bookstores still close down every year, sales at independent bookstores overall are rising, established independents are expanding, and new ones are popping up from Brooklyn to Big Stone Gap, Va. Bookstore owners credit the modest increases to everything from the shuttering of Borders to the rise of the "buy local" movement to a get-'er-done outlook among the indies that would shame Larry the Cable Guy. If they have to sell cheesecake or run a summer camp to survive, add it to the to-do list.

"2012 was the year of the bookstore," says Wendy Welch, co-owner of Tales of the Lonesome Pine in Virginia and author of the 2012 memoir "The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap." In her memoir, she recounts how she and her husband, Jack Beck, created – sometimes despite themselves – a successful used-book store in a town that, by any business measure, is too small to support one.

"Jack and I will never be rich. But we found a place where people said there wasn't a market and we said 'yes there was,' " says Ms. Welch. "We feel like it's important for bookslingers to hang together – we'll hang together or we'll hang separately.... And we're holding the line."

Sales at independent bookstores rose about 8 percent in 2012 over 2011, according to a survey by the American Booksellers Association (ABA). This growth was all the more remarkable since the sales of the national chain Barnes & Noble were so tepid. "I think the worst days of the independents are behind them," says Jim Milliot, coeditorial director for Publishers Weekly magazine. "The demise of traditional print books has been a bit overblown. Everybody is a little anxious, but they are starting to think they've figured it out for the time being."

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