Indie booksellers answer their community’s call

More than 300 independent bookstores have opened in the last two years, according to the American Booksellers Association.

Stephen Humphries/The Christian Science Monitor
Papercuts, an indie bookstore in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, is well supported by the community.

As the books editor, I often hear from readers who are passionate about, and loyal to, their local bookstore. As patrons, they feel a connection and a sense of unity with their community. The good news is that independent shops are faring well, and they are also becoming more diverse. 

Pre-pandemic, the outlook for indies appeared bleak, with Amazon dominating the market. But among the silver linings of life in lockdown was a return to the printed word. “People wanted to rebuild their attention spans,” says Kate Layte, owner of Papercuts Bookshop in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. She and her staff curate a collection of titles by historically underrepresented authors, “books that we stand behind, voices we want to uplift,” she says. 

The overall signs are encouraging, with the trade publication Publishers Weekly calling it a “mini indie bookstore boom.” More than 300 independent bookstores opened in the last two years, according to the American Booksellers Association. Sales have risen, too. Eighty percent of stores saw higher sales in 2021 than in 2020. 

Neighborhood support is key. Ms. Layte credits her community’s strong sense of shared literary history with keeping her store going. Booksellers “are the stewards of our spaces,” she says. 

In 2020, Ms. Layte had just moved from a 400-square-foot hole in the wall to a space triple that size – and then the pandemic hit. A GoFundMe campaign and online sales kept her store afloat. Papercuts opened in its new location in May 2020. Then, in April 2022, two cars crashed into the store’s front window (no one was hurt). The neighborhood swung into action again, raising money to make repairs. The shop, which Ms. Layte says is finally turning a profit, was able to reopen just days later.     

Brick-and-mortar stores make a difference. “It’s really hard to discover anything online, because everything is there,” Ms. Layte says. “That’s why we [need] booksellers who know their community and talk with customers one-on-one.” 

The indie bookstore scene is also seeing an uptick in the number of owners who are people of color. According to a report in Publishers Weekly, the number of Black-owned bookstores rose from 54 in 2014 to 111 in 2021, although that’s still only 4% of the estimated 2,500 independent bookstores in the United States. Black booksellers face many of the same hurdles as Black business owners in getting bank loans – they’re much more likely than white or Asian proprietors to rely on personal and family savings for financing, according to  

It’s not easy for small stores to survive. “The business ebbs and flows,” says Carlos Franklin, owner of Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which specializes in Black literature. He’s often had to pay out of his own pocket to keep the doors open, but he looks at it as a public service. “It’s a blessing to provide the community with knowledge,” he says. 

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