Why independent bookstores are thriving in spite of Amazon
From ukulele lessons to speed-dating events, local shops are attracting loyal customers seeking a social hub in an online world. And they’re buying books, too.
The Saturday before Valentine’s Day, a large crowd braves the frigid February night to head to the Trident Booksellers and Café in Boston. Upstairs, a roaring fire flickers from a video screen, and each of the 39 tables in the store’s café has a book on it — Mya Spalter’s Enchantments, Cris Beam’s I Feel You, The Love Gap by Jenna Birch — standing upright, with a number tucked into it.
As people check in, they’re assigned to a table, and given a card with a list of names, with yes-or-no check boxes next to them. It’s an ethnically diverse group of men and women mostly in their 20s and 30s, most of whom registered for this event, a night of speed dating, via a Google Form. They settle in nervously, stealing glances at one another before studying the cards in their hands to see how many dates they have (more men than women registered, and not everyone has a full slate).
A few minutes pass before a voice comes over a tinny speaker: “If you didn’t fill out the Google Form, we’ll find a date for you. It might be awkward to fill out yes or no next to your date but I trust you guys to handle it. Also: You may get a slot with no date, in which case you can get a drink. In fact, we encourage you to get lots of drinks.” The crowd laughs.
This is speed dating in a bookstore. Trident sold out the event in a week, 65 tickets at $15 each (including a $5 food and drink voucher). Since the shop reopened in August 2018 after being closed for six months after a fire, it’s emphasized getting people in the door for live experiences, even hiring a second events coordinator. Besides speed dating, Trident offers book swaps, a calligraphy workshop called Sip & Script, and a monthly Self-Care Night, complete with adult coloring books and feel-good movies. “Those emotionally charged events are the most well attended for us,” says Caitlin Kling, one of the store’s events and marketing coordinators. Events help the bookstore in two ways, she says: People order food and drinks in the restaurant, and there’s a jump in the number of people browsing the shelves of the store, not jut for books but also gifts and games.
Only a few decades ago, mom-and-pop independent bookstores were supposed to disappear, crushed by Barnes & Noble. (The plot of the 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail pivots on this very tension.) But today, it’s Barnes & Noble that’s trying to survive the Amazon.com-driven retail apocalypse currently blighting American malls and shopping districts, while independent bookstores are doing pretty fine. According to a recent report from the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookstores in the country is up 31 percent since 2009. And book sales at independent bookstores grew nearly 7.5 percent on a compounded basis over the past five years.
Driving the trend is an increase in the number of Americans shopping at businesses in their neighborhoods. “People get that dollars spent locally go back into the community,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. It also helps that the nuts-and-bolts parts of running a business — inventory and accounting systems, not to mention customer outreach, have gotten much cheaper, helping small businesses compete more effectively with large ones. And independent booksellers are positioned to adapt and respond to their community interests quickly and creatively.
An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville started offering people the chance to learn to play ukulele after a local instructor pitched the idea. What started as five students has grown to 100, meeting in the store’s second floor events space (the store takes a cut of the tuition). Some of the players have formed The Unlikely Strummers, gathering at the store to play and occasionally perform flash mobs. The event space, which seats 200, is the store’s secret sauce: At night, there are author events, open mike nights, and trivia contests. During the day, the store, about halfway between Boston and Providence, programs classes and events for kids, including story times for preschoolers twice each Friday, when it isn’t offered at the local library. When a store offers activities that the community benefits from, “people come back” says Deb Sundin, general manager of An Unlikely Story, which is owned by author Jeff Kinney of Diary of a Wimpy Kid fame. “Even though they might not buy something that day, they think about you the next time they need to buy a book, gift, or card.”
Books still make up about 80 percent of sales for independent bookstores, but “it’s not a passive business anymore — unpacking the books and expecting customers isn’t enough,” says Teicher. “You’ve got to create a place that’s interesting and compelling.” The place doesn’t even have to be permanent. The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, which opened in Acton in March 2018, created a pop-up romance book shop this year in Somerville’s Bow Market for Valentine’s Day. Owner Paul Swydan pulled it off by partnering with Clarissa Murphy, codirector of Metro Boston Bookstore Day and a lover of romance novels, who had posted a message on her Facebook page suggesting the idea. For about a week in February, the shop offered racks of romance titles ranging from bestsellers such as Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series to bodice rippers with titles such as The Soldier’s Scoundrel and Duke of Pleasure. The store had signings by Boston Globe Love Letters columnist and author Meredith Goldstein and Martha’s Vineyard-based writer N.D. Galland. There was even a Fabio cutout to inspire customer selfies. “The pop-up that I’m doing with Paul illustrates what we can do with an independent bookstore that Amazon can’t do,” says Murphy. “We’re able to be innovative and turn on a dime to try something new.” And Swydan says sales were strong enough that “we’ll almost certainly do” another pop-up store.
Print Aint Dead, which aims to create spaces to celebrate literature by people of color, intends to be a perpetual pop-up shop. It was started in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner in late 2018 by Arielle Gray and Cierra Peters, using a grant from the Design Studio for Social Intervention, a Dorchester arts and development nonprofit. Gray and Peters have hosted multiple author events, and sell new and used books by authors of color at the Dudley Square Black Market and other venues. They also sell handmade tote bags and key chains featuring quotes from people they call their “literary ancestors,” such as James Baldwin and Audre Lorde (between events, they store books and merchandise in Gray’s Dorchester apartment). Their only permanent location is Instagram. They introduced the poet Morgan Parker for a February event hosted by the Jamaica Plain Forum and woman-owned bookstore Papercuts J.P., and on March 15 they’ll set up shop at a Museum of Fine Arts Late Nites event, with Brookline Booksmith sponsoring a portion of their book selection.
“What’s most rewarding is seeing young people of color walking away from our table with an armful of books,” says Gray, for less than it would cost to buy them new.
A different sort of cause has been a draw for Brookline Booksmith. When President Trump announced his travel ban in January 2017, it created a window display featuring writers from each of the seven countries named in it, which drew considerable attention on social media. Shuchi Saraswat, one of the store’s book buyers, maintained the window display, and had the idea to develop a Transnational Literature Series, which three times a month features an international author in conversation about their work.
Saraswat says that through its consistency, the series helps people counter the cycle of “we see something in the news. We share it, get wound up, and then something else comes up and we go through the cycle again.” The series has developed a regular following and has helped bring visibility to small press authors. Brookline Booksmith’s co-owner, Lisa Gozashti, considers these events a long-term investment, helping the store deepen its value to the community.
When Trump’s travel ban was announced, Josh Cook, marketing director at Porter Square Books, got inspired by the writer and social critic Roxane Gay’s talk at the American Booksellers Association’s annual Winter Institute. Gay exhorted her audience of roughly 600 to address “the diversity problem” in publishing. He responded by launching several initiatives: Be the Change, a political activism gathering which meets one Sunday most months; a Reader Prom, where attendees brought books to donate to a Harvard Square homeless shelter; an Overnight Readathon to raise money for literacy; and a Writers in Residence program aimed at writers from “marginalized communities.” “We’re a place of books and books are inherently political,” Cook says.
There are, of course, plenty of events at Brookline Booksmith and Porter Square Books that aren’t political. Both hold author readings and book clubs and other staples of bookstores. But Cook says bookstores play multiple roles. “We always thought of ourselves as a resource for the community — whether that’s ‘I want to fix my plumbing’ or ‘I want to make the world a better place.’ ”
Or even find a date. Back at Trident Booksellers, a planned playlist is abandoned as the room buzzes loudly with conversations. Couples at tables are finishing up the last of their five-minute dates, many of which started with, “What are you reading right now?” People deposit their completed surveys into a metal bin by the door and file out — the bookstore will tell them if they’ve made any matches. A couple in the back lingers after their five minutes are over. They flip through a book on the table, laughing. At the other end of the café, a group of single women, who met at the event, decide to head to the downstairs restaurant for drinks.
One attendee, Tim Devine, 23, says it was his second Trident event. He likes that the bookstore sets up low-stakes, experiential ways for people to connect in a city known for its reserve.
“Even if it doesn’t create community,” he says, “it encourages a bit of whimsy, which is hard to find in a social venue.”