On the weekends, the line outside the new Beacon Hill Books sometimes snakes out the door. Brookline Booksmith has expanded twice since the pandemic. Later this year, Harvard Book Store will open at the Prudential Center — moving into a 29,000-square-foot space previously occupied by Barnes & Noble.
Indeed, these are optimistic times for independent bookstores in Greater Boston, with four new shops sprouting up in and around Boston since 2020, and more on the way. And what variety bibliophiles have to choose from: There’s a feminist bookstore at Somerville’s Assembly Row, an outpost of a Provincetown favorite coming to the Seaport, and that five-story spectacle on Charles Street.
“There was a period where there were more stores closing in Boston than were opening,” said Allison Hill, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. “Now we’re seeing Boston return to being a bookstore town.”
This renaissance has come as somewhat of a surprise: It wasn’t long ago that independent bookstores were on the decline, felled by the trio of Amazon, big-box stores, and e-readers. A revival began before COVID, but the pandemic then forced shops forced to pivot overnight to new delivery systems and grapple with supply chain snarls. Stores’ razor-thin margins were mostly stripped of event business, food and gift sales, and the foot traffic of spontaneous browsers.
But interviews with more than a dozen local independent bookstore proprietors and experts describe an industry entering a new chapter.
The pandemic, far from a death knell, galvanized customers to read more, shop locally, and, as the world reopened, indulge a bit more in offline experiences. Federal funds and other investments helped owners stay afloat, or even expand. And for developers and landlords looking to lure people back to brick-and-mortar shopping, bookstores old and new became model tenants.
The result? A Boston bookstore scene that is more robust, diverse, and hopeful than it’s been in years.
“There was definitely the reality of [bookstores] dying,” said Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. “The narrative was that they’re never coming back.”
So, how exactly did independent bookstores change their story? The answer, according to Harvard Business School professor Ryan Raffaelli, lies in the “3C’s”: community, curation, and convening. Raffaelli, who wrote a white paper in 2020 on the topic, says bookstores tend to knit themselves into a neighborhood, offer customers a unique selection of books and “sidelines” (gifts or other products, which tend to have higher margins), and act as a “third space,” away from home and work, where people can gather.
These are attributes, said Raffaelli, that no algorithm can match. “As Boston continues to expand, and reconfigure itself, people are moving into new parts of the city and looking for those similar types of experiences,” he said. “They’re anchors of authenticity.”
Just take the newest addition to Boston’s bookstore scene: Rozzie Bound Co-op in Roslindale, a neighborhood that has gone without a full-service bookstore for more than a decade. Roy Karp, along with four other worker-owners, opened the 200-square-foot nook in January with the help of more than 150 “consumer-owners” — members of the community who purchased $100 shares in the business.
“They’re buying the shares because they want to see the bookstore in their community,” said Karp, who founded Rozzie Bound as a pop-up at the nearby Substation.
In Fields Corner, too, a forthcoming bookstore was willed into reality. Words as Worlds — helmed by Boston poet laureate Porsha Olayiwola and Bing Broderick, the longtime head of the nonprofit Haley House — is slated to open this fall on the ground floor of a new Dorchester Avenue apartment building. The goal, the pair said, is for the store to act as a community hub in a neighborhood that tends to go dark early.
And it’s clear that sort of space is in demand. The building’s developer collected community feedback and held a vote to help decide what to put on the ground floor. The bookstore prevailed. “People want it,” said Olayiwola.
To be sure, several independent bookstores in the area rely on deep pockets. Red Sox owner John Henry swooped in with a jolt of cash to invest in Harvard Book Store in 2021. (Henry also owns The Boston Globe.) Melissa Fetter paid $2.6 million to purchase the building for Beacon Hill Books, then funded a gut renovation before it opened last fall.
But the community, these proprietors say, has returned their investment in kind. Beacon Hill Books sold more than 35,000 books in just the last three months of 2022; their payroll has grown from 12 to 26. Fetter said that two other Charles Street storefront owners sent her cards around Christmastime, thanking her for the “bookstore bump” in business.
”It has become a destination,” said Fetter. The majority of her clientele — many of whom discover the store through viral clips on Instagram or TikTok — are 35 and under. “I see that as a great sign for our industry,” she said.
Other bookstores have found success by carving out niches. At Hummingbird Books in Chestnut Hill, which opened last spring, a giant, climbable tree welcomes children to the space. In Assembly Row, readers come from near and far to shop at All She Wrote, a bookstore that carries queer and feminist texts. The shop, which opened in the summer of 2020, might not carry Bill Gates’ latest title, but they can be counted on to stock multicultural children’s books or memoirs from transgender authors.
“People showed up for us and were like, ‘We need this. We need this type of bookstore in Boston,’” said owner Christina Pascucci Ciampa. “Our curation is what makes us who we are.”
Even at established bookstores, owners are noticing renewed enthusiasm from shoppers that has allowed them to widen their footprints. People are returning in person to Harvard Book Store’s big-name author readings, which make up a sizable chunk of its business and are expected to draw crowds to the new Pru location. “They see us as bringing a lot of business to the building,” said general manager Rachel Cass.
Meanwhile, Brookline Booksmith has taken over two neighboring storefronts since the pandemic — first to expand their gift section and next to broaden their art and design stacks. The store now takes up nearly half the block. Sales are up “double-digit percentage points” from pre-pandemic, said co-owner Lisa Gozashti.
“There’s something about it that’s changed,” said Gozashti. “It’s not just browsing. I feel like people are making a day of it.”
But is this verve here to stay? Hill, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, said she’s heard from member stores that sales slowed last year, a shift that comes amid broad economic uncertainty.
“They, like so many small businesses right now, are suffering the challenges of the labor shortage, and supply chain issues, and rising costs and inflation,” said Hill. “There are values that have been reignited post-pandemic that will definitely support them, but it will be challenging.”
Back at Rozzie Bound, sales are good, but “they could be better,” said Karp, the founder. He’s hoping that foot traffic from the nearby farmer’s market will give sales a boost in the coming months. But for now, the slow drip of customers will suffice.
On a recent Wednesday, West Roxbury resident Theresa McKay came in with her son before they picked up some Italian takeout. “When I see a bookstore, I’m immediately drawn to it,” said McKay.
She browsed for a bit before eventually leaving empty-handed — but not without a cliffhanger: “We’ll be back.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Fields Corner bookstore. It is “Words as Worlds,” not “Worlds as Words.”