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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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"My business is great. My book business is not," says Thomas Wright, owner of the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar in Asheville, N.C., a mountain city with a "phobia" about chain stores. (You won't find a Starbucks or McDonald's downtown.) "There's been a loss of so many of them [bookstores], we may be at the dead cat bounce."

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A few years ago, Mr. Wright added a wine bar – serving cheese boards, summer sausages, olives, and jams – and a cafe serving Italian sodas and specialty coffees, as well as locally made bread, cakes, and chocolates. Eighty percent of the Book Exchange's sales now come from food and beverages – not books.

"I had to do something to keep the bookstore open. This is what I've done," says Wright, a self-described "book-a-phile" who spends almost as much time talking up other Asheville bookstores as discussing his own store's survival strategy.

"It's a meeting place. We basically sell conviviality at a price," he says. "For the most part, our books are probably viewed as wallpaper."

While Battery Park Book Exchange seems to have found an economic model that works, Wright doesn't see business schools turning out ranks of future booksellers. Tomorrow's capitalists are probably better off sticking with finance than fiction.

Someone forgot to tell that to Matthew Norcross. The former trader on the Chicago Board of Trade moved home to Petoskey, Mich., in 2002, planning to apply to grad schools. Instead, he ended up working at his mom's bookstore, McLean & Eakin Booksellers, where he met his wife, Jessilyn. Three years ago, they bought the store.

The Norcrosses have thrown themselves into the digital side of bookselling, with an online customer base that is third among ABA members. Powell's, the Oregon indie legend, is first by a wide margin. Jessilyn Norcross's weekly e-mail list has 4,000 subscribers – not an unusually large amount, until you consider that Petoskey's year-round population is 5,000.

"Where you win this fight is how many customers you get in your system," says Mr. Norcross. "How many people have decided to buy e-books from you?"

The loyalty of local patrons to an institution as comfortable and quirky as a pair of Chuck Taylors remains a powerful draw for many independent bookstores, though, too. Just ask Jean Haller, who, like Philbrick, saw her dreams of bookselling almost vanish in a calamity.

On Nov. 13, 2011, her self-help bookstore in Pittsburgh, Journeys of Life, burned down. It was a total loss: The fire was so hot the card racks and ceiling fan wilted like dying plants.

At the time, she was 62. She thought "for about 10 minutes" about just taking the insurance money. "I knew I was never going to be able to sell it for what it's worth," says Ms. Haller. "I couldn't do it. Being as invested with the community as I was, that's not the way I wanted to go out."

The community, her vendors, and pub-lishers all rallied behind her. One trade show sent her cash. Vendor reps showed up with boxes of items to sell. Volunteers painted the walls of a temporary store. Others brandished sticker guns to price everything.

"The support was phenomenal," says Haller. "People kept asking, 'What can we do? What can we do?' "

Her reply: "Come and shop."

She opened two weeks later. Her customers came, with open wallets.

Haller, whose good fortune has continued – she just recorded the second-best January in 22 years in business – has a name for her store's rebirth: "Journeys of Life: Rising from the Ashes."

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