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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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One book published last year, "Mr. Stran-ger's Sealed Packet," had fewer than 10 copies left in existence, according to Mr. Kalb. So he drove to West Virginia and borrowed a copy from an Episcopal retreat to "very delicately photograph every page."

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In its quest to locate obscure titles in need of rescuing, Singularity & Co. was acquiring "thousands and thousands of books," says Kalb, who filled a room in his apartment. The Brooklyn store just opened last August, and Kalb says that so far, it's sold a year's worth of books in six months.

The diversified income streams from the publishing wing, physical bookstore, and a website help alleviate some of the economic pressure. As for choosing the type of books it wants to sell, that's easy.

"It's all the stuff I wanted when I was 13 years old," says Kalb.

In another encouraging sign for the industry, many existing independent bookstores are expanding their shelf space. In January, Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston, which was founded in 1984, added a second floor, bringing the store's total footprint to more than 6,000 square feet.

WORD, the first English-speaking bookstore in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood – famed for its bibliophile basketball league and matchmaking service for bookworms – is opening a second branch and cafe in Jersey City, N.J., this spring. Sales were up 41 percent in 2012.

"These days, community-building is the most important key to an indie bookstore's success," says owner Christine Onaroti. "I believe that the days of just putting books on a shelf and hoping people will come in to buy them – [that] is not realistic.... There's not a lot of room for pretentious, snooty booksellers these days."

In Kalamazoo, Mich., independent bookstore Bookbug doubled in size at the end of 2011, expanding into the space operated by a now-defunct Young Chefs Academy. The bookstore, which opened in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession as a children's bookstore, has seen its sales grow by more than 70 percent each of the past two years.

"We knew full well the reality of the book business in 2008," says Joanna Parzakonis, who owns the store with her husband, Derek Molitor, and partner Nicole Butz.

When Bookbug opened, Kalamazoo had a used-book store, Kazoo Books, with two branches, as well as an antiquarian bookstore and the Michigan News Agency, which sells paperbacks. A Barnes & Noble is located in neighboring Portage. But the town already had lost an independent bookstore, Athena, which closed in 2004.

"Barnes & Noble was here. The big-box stores were here. Amazon was existent. Those factors were not relevant to us," says Ms. Parzakonis, sitting on a comfy gray couch with Scrabble tile pillows spelling "S-I-T." T-shirts emblazoned with cover art from "A Wrinkle in Time" and "The Raven" hang near the register.

The bookstore's most prominent feature is a playhouse, shingled with oversized covers of classic children's books. A manual typewriter sits on a top shelf and is popular among teens and tweens, who leave messages for Parzakonis.

"We wanted to create an environment that was not only a place to sell books, but a place to talk about books, to welcome authors, musicians, artists," says Parzakonis.

Bookbug has hosted bestselling authors such as "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" creator Jeff Kinney and local artists who teach kids how to draw things such as fairies and dragons. It does so much community outreach that it was nominated in February for a community award from the Women's National Book Association in Washington.

"We have to be proactive in a different way," says Parzakonis. "Earlier, people just came because you were where the books are."

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Not every bookseller sees more book buyers in their future – even ones who are part of the expansion.


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