Comeback story: A new chapter for indie bookstores

Why We Wrote This

While their numbers aren’t what they once were, independent bookstores are reclaiming their place in society. Behind their surprise resurgence is renewed emphasis on fostering community. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Keshav Ramaswamy digs into a book during an event at the independent Trident Booksellers and Café on Dec. 4, 2018, in Boston.

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In the past decade, the number of independent bookstores in the United States has grown by more than 50%, from 1,651 stores to more than 2,500, according to Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer of the American Booksellers Association. 

Observers say a special blend of local flavor, dedication to physical books, accessibility to authors, and a business model that includes other revenue streams has fueled the resurgence. The formula has proved so successful chains are working to bring a small-venue feel to their big-box stores. 

“One of the key ingredients to the independent bookseller is this notion of community,” says Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. Owners often sit on city boards and are active in public schools, he says. 

Patricia Fowler, owner of Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls, Vermont, serves as treasurer for two local community groups and participated in a program to support high schoolers as they plan for the future. 

“Some of our customers that started out reading picture books are now into the teen and young adult books,” says Ms. Fowler. “We grow with our customers.”

Shaw Taylor, owner of Rodney’s Bookstore in Cambridge, has been selling books for almost 20 years. But he’s been an observer of independent bookstores and the topsy-turvy industry for even longer.

“Cambridge in the ’70s had 35 bookstores,” Mr. Taylor says. “Now I think there’s probably 10 to 15.” 

While their numbers certainly aren’t what they once were, independent bookstores continue to defend their peculiar niche against slim profit margins, large chain bookstores, and the rising tide of e-book vendors. (Some online services, like Libro, encourage subscribers to support local stores.) In the past decade, the number of independent bookstores in the United States has grown by more than 50%, from 1,651 stores to more than 2,500, according to Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer of the American Booksellers Association. Last year, sales increased by 5%, says Mr. Cullen.

Observers say a special blend of local flavor, dedication to physical books, accessibility to author tours, and a business model that includes other revenue streams has helped to keep the lights on for many independent bookstores. The formula has proved so successful even chains are working to bring a small-venue feel to their big-box stores. Barnes & Noble, with its 600-plus storefronts scattered across the U.S., was in decline until it was bought by Elliott Management Corp., the parent corporation of Waterstones. The Britain-based chain credits its resurgence, in part, to individual managers keeping a close eye on the interests of local customers.

“One of the key ingredients to the independent bookseller is this notion of community,” says Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who studies the reemergence of industries and technologies. Independent bookstores have found success by fashioning spaces where like-minded readers can convene and mingle with authors on tour. Owners often sit on city boards and are active in public schools, he says. 

And as community members themselves, bookstore owners are often in the know about local happenings and work to build personal relationships. 

Patricia Fowler, owner of Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls, Vermont, serves as treasurer for two local community groups and participated in a program to support high schoolers as they plan for the future. 

“We grow with our customers,” said Ms. Fowler. “Some of our customers that started out reading picture books are now into the teen young adult books. So we’ve expanded that section.”

Unlike chain bookstores, independent bookstore owners are free to shape their offerings to their own interests. Mr. Taylor in Cambridge, for example, sells masks from Congo because his brother makes an annual trip there and brings back a fresh supply. And Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, North Carolina – a popular local meeting place – offers drinks with clever names. Choices include Wolf in Cheap Clothing, a honey and vanilla soy latte.

“[Local bookstores] do a better job of ambience because there’s a little bit more quirk,” says Thomas Bertorelli, a customer of Trident Booksellers and Café in Boston. “You have a little bit more inconsistency, which makes it look a little bit more homely.” 

Besides its expansive menu and rows of books, Trident Booksellers and Café generally offers one or two events a day, says Dana Guth, an event coordinator for Trident. These events range from literary readings to homestyle cooking events and even speed dating. 

Many bookstores host 500 to 600 events each year. Often, it’s independent bookstores that unearth up-and-coming authors before they gain fame, says Mr. Raffaelli. In turn, the authors become loyal to the bookstores.

Locals also bring visiting friends to independent bookstores as a way to experience the flavor of the town, says Ms. Fowler. Part of the thrill for first-time visitors is walking into a place that’s completely different than any other bookstore. 

“You go into an independent bookstore and you never know what you’re going to get,” says Ms. Fowler. “People come in from Boston or Connecticut or New York and they go, ‘Oh boy, who’s the buyer here? This place is quirky. This is fun.’”

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