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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. 

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Independents are valued more these days by publishers, who need them for their print sales. Their small size and low infrastructure – seen as a liability in the mid-1990s – are also considered an advantage.

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"We absolutely believe indies are the small, fast-moving mammals in this dynamic," said Michael Tamblyn, chief content officer of Kobo, speaking at the ABA's Winter Institute in Kansas City, Mo., in February. In November, Kobo, a Toronto-based e-reading company, partnered with the ABA to sell e-readers and e-books at independent stores. So far, about 450 have signed on.

"If e-books are the asteroid hitting this planet, small independent bookstores are the ones most likely to come out the other side," said Mr. Tamblyn.

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Industry insiders believe several other developments have helped revive indies in recent years. One has been widely cited as an example of bookstores' shaky paperbound future.

"Part of the reason we had a good 2012 was that Borders went away," says ABA head Oren Teicher, of the Michigan-based chain that closed its remaining stores in 2011. "Some number of those customers shopping at bricks-and-mortars have found a way to independent stores."

A second factor is the buy-local movement, which has grown steadily over the past five years. It has benefited everyone from restaurateurs to toy store owners to artisan soap and jam makers to those who run creaky-floored hardware stores. Independent bookstores are what urbanists call "third places," like farmers' markets, that add to a community's sense of identity. And like farmers' markets, some customers come for the atmosphere, not the prices.

"The localism movement in America has really reached a tipping point," says Mr. Teicher. "It's no longer just a few people out there preaching localism."

In addition, the rise of social media means that bookstores can reach customers without the benefit of giant advertising budgets. And the cost of payroll and inventory systems, which used to be prohibitively expensive for a small store, have come down.

"Technology has really helped level the playing field enormously in how our members can be competitive," says Teicher.

For the most part, gone are the days of the hobbyist who opened an independent bookstore because he or she just loved to read. In fact, Daniel Goldin, owner of the Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, recently refused to pose for a newspaper while reading a book.

"We don't read in the store," says Mr. Goldin, who has, however, been known to open up at 7 a.m. for a regular customer or drive two hours to help out an author at an event.

Today's owners often have researched the business and worked in other stores before they started putting up shelves. Goldin, for example, worked as a buyer for Schwartz Books and bought his storefront location from the former owners when the local chain closed in 2009 after 82 years.

In another encouraging sign, John Mutter, editor in chief of Shelf Awareness, publisher of two industry newsletters, sees more young owners than he did five years ago, when industry events "were a sea of gray hair," he says.

At bookstores nationwide, the community event has replaced the cat as de rigueur. Independents have added cafes and costume plays, and sell everything from locally made cards, T-shirts, and toys to chocolates and calendars.

In Austin, Texas, Steve Bercu, owner of the 28,000-square-foot BookPeople, has a camp director on staff. The full-time employee runs the store's popular Camp Half-Blood, modeled after Rick Riordan's bestselling "Percy Jackson" series about demigods living in modern America. In addition to climbing walls and swimming, the 11-to-14-year-old campers learn about Greek and Roman mythology from university classical scholars.

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