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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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Every November, parents line up at 4 a.m. to get tickets, which sell out within hours for the next summer – some have even camped out overnight to secure their child a spot. Mr. Bercu also has added a "Ranger's Apprentice" camp and, new this summer, a "Star Wars" camp.

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"People are loyal to us as customers because their children are loyal to us as campers," says Bercu, whose store opened in Austin in 1970.

But surely business was better in the good old days – when Amazon was just a river in South America?

"We had the best year in store history in 2012," says Bercu, a founder of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, which promotes locally owned businesses. "It was the third best year in a row. We're up 12 percent so far for 2013."

Not only independents' sales, but their ranks, are growing, too – albeit modestly. In 2009, the low point for its membership, the ABA had 1,401 members with 1,651 locations across the United States. Since then, the ABA has seen three straight years of growth. As of May 2012, it had 1,567 members with 1,900 locations. In January, Publishers Weekly magazine reported that the ABA had added another 40 bookstores in 24 states.

"I know it kind of flies in the face of what a lot of people kind of presume is the 'You've Got Mail' syndrome," says Teicher.

Today, in some cities, independents have outlasted the chains. In Santa Barbara, Calif., both Borders and Barnes & Noble have closed. Chaucer's Bookstore, founded in 1974, is still dispensing novels.

And while everyone is supposed to be staring into an e-reader in the future, instead of flipping pages, Mr. Mutter says studies show that digital books are not heading for 100 percent market saturation. In fact, he notes, "some people who switched to digital have switched back."

* * *

E-books are just the latest in a string of threats that were supposed to kill off independents. In the 1930s, some people believed the paperback would mean the death of bookstores. In the 1970s, it was mall chains like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks.

"Those are all gone now," says Mutter.

Another factor that may be contributing to the independents' survival is that so many bookstores have closed, they have found a sustainable level. From 2000 to 2007, 1,000 bookstores went out of business in the US, according to federal statistics. Collectively, independents have about a 10 percent share of the market, compared with Amazon's 29 percent and Barnes & Noble's 20 percent.

None of this is to say that closures have stopped. Pudd'nhead Books in St. Louis, Archivia Books in New York, and Rainy Day Books in Tillamook, Ore., are among those that shut down in December.

Yet new ones are sprouting up to take their place. In Brooklyn, where the Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers closed last year, several new bookstores have opened.

One, sci-fi bookstore Singularity & Co., relies on a business model with several different income streams – including all four partners working additional jobs. Co-owner Ash Kalb, for example, is a lawyer who works with tech start-ups. "I have the best law office in the world," he says. "My law office is a sci-fi bookshop."

Singularity & Co. started as a publisher. It rescues one out-of-print science-fiction title a month, purchases the rights from the copyright holder, and republishes the book digitally. Subscribers get access for a $29 annual fee, or can buy a title individually.

The seed money came from a Kickstarter fundraising campaign that brought in a reported $57,000. Singularity's subscriber base now numbers in the thousands.

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