ATG Original: Bookstores Face the Realities of 21st Century Commerce: Part 2 – Indie Bookstores Rise To the Occasion

by | Apr 15, 2019 | 0 comments

Nancy Herther

by Nancy K. Herther

(This is Part 2 of a 2-part series. Click here to read Part 1.)

Highland Indiana’s Miles Books owner Jim Roumbos believes we are seeing a resurgence of the local bookshop. “More than 200 independent bookstores have opened over the past few years,” Roumbos says. “A couple of years back, everyone thought reading electronically would be the next big trend. But ebook and Kindle sales have stabilized, and new book sales are flat. It’s used book sales that are growing.”

“We have to work harder at what we do,” Roumbos continued. “I have to become sharper and sharper with what I know, so I can figure out where to find a book a customer wants as books become scarcer and scarcer. People have more and more choices. Thankfully, we have a core base of customers who like your store and know that if they don’t choose to shop in a local independent bookstore, their choice will ultimately not be as broad.”

“The cultural and economic impact that independent and small book stores have on the cities in which they do business is significant,” notes a small town Pennsylvania newspaper. “They are often seen as indicators of a healthy business community and a consumer friendly environment. And, thankfully, there appears to be a lot of positive signs for their future success.”  Another regional newspaper’s article title clearly states their perspective: “Guess what’s anchoring many small downtowns? Even in the age of online shopping, the answer is: bookstores.” In a business climate in which many of the ‘big box’ companies – Sears, J.C. Penney, American Apparel, Herbergers, Radio Shack – have been disappearing, small, locally-based ventures seem to be doing just fine. ABA statistics show that over 2,400 communities are now being served by ABA-member bookstores alone.

Even in Amazon’s brick-and-mortar bookstores, the focus is on quick, tailored shopping experiences and hands-on access to Amazon-branded merchandise; even huge shopping centers are focusing more on user-experience than endless mass-produced merchandise.  In Minnesota, when a large Herbergers store emptied, the Rosedale Shopping Center owners have put forward potential plans for housing and public events for the space. The Century City Westfield mall has added a virtual reality theater, outdoor auditorium and gym for their customers. New York City’s famed Strand bookstore now offers a curation service for those hoping to establish their own personal “designer libraries.”

As a recent Washington Post  article stresses, “personality and a sense of community” are trends that are fueling the increase in independent bookstores, which allow for “a connection with the community” that isn’t possible with Amazon – at any price. And, amazingly, that sense of community extends to the indies as well.  In Southampton, England, October Books, a small radical bookshop, needed to move to a new location “down the street.”  How did they manage this?  Customers and friends of the indie formed a human chain and passed the books along from the old location to the new. When the owner of San Diego’s Book Catapult became ill, it was a group of eight volunteers from other indie bookstores who stepped in to keep his bookstore going!


 Booksellers and industry experts interviewed for this report made it clear that success doesn’t involve any secret formula or magic, but lots of hard work, a deep love of books and reading and the ability to bring others into deeper relationship with knowledge, reading and a love of the written word.

Donna Paz Kaufman

Donna Paz Kaufman of Paz & Associates has been working since 1992 helping booksellers “lead healthy, life-driven, profitable independent bookstores. The independent booksellers who have proven to be resilient are, in my view, model business owners. They have dug deep into their reasons for being in business and why their presence is valued within their neighborhoods and communities. It’s all very personal. Many booksellers truly are driven by a ‘heart of service,’ which drives everything they do. You see friendly and helpful staff members, creative and interesting events, successful social media engagement, and support for all kinds of community efforts for the greater good. This is the DNA of independent booksellers even though each have their own way of living this out each day.”

Here’s a summary of the tips and strategies mentioned by the over 45 bookstores we contacted:

  1. Location, location, location.

Physical location is important; however it is just the tip of the iceberg according to booksellers we contacted. Award-winning author Louise Erdich’s Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, for example, relies as much on contacts with other bookstores and web clients as much as their walk-in traffic. They describe the bookstore as “operated by a spirited collection of people who believe in the power of good writing, the beauty of handmade art, the strength of Native culture, and the importance of small and intimate bookstores. Our books are lovingly chosen. Our store is tended with care.” They have well-positioned themselves as a key international  resource in the area of native American and indigenous authors and topics and have created a community that extends across North America. Their free online newsletter is an important resource for any reader.

In Hopkins, Minnesota, the Minneapolis suburb lacked its own bookstore until Cream & Amber set up operation on a main street.  The shop not only stocks a wide selection of books, but coffee, craft beer, wine and some treats as well – from panini, soups and other snacks to heavenly mini-doughnuts on weekends. They have a community room that can hold 12 people for bookclubs or other get-togethers. As co-owner Katie Terhune explains, “we have a love of reading, good beer, and Minnesotan community. We saw an opportunity to strengthen the Hopkins community, which lacked a bookstore, by creating a space where you can grab a book in one hand and a dark roast, or stout, in the other.” They are active users of Facebook and other social media not only to ‘advertise’ but to keep in communication with their core communities.

The brick-and-mortar foundation of the building doesn’t limit the creativity of successful bookstores. In Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Mac’s Backs Books co-owner Suzanne DeGaetano reports they had their best year ever last year. Mac’s Backs is a good example of how these businesses have grown by “redefining their roles in the community, not only as places to buy books, but also to enjoy and encourage reading.” DeGaetano explains that “we have sold books offsite at over 70 different locations, including libraries and other venues and we partner with nonprofits to bring books to their special events.” Physical location is important, but today with the internet and heightened mobility, stores have nearly unlimited opportunities to redefine and explore many ‘alternative’ locations for their expertise and inventory.

  1.  Careful curation of merchandize by talented, savvy professionals.

In February the ABA announced their 2019 Author Ambassador for the fifth Independent Bookstore Day (IBD) as Tayari Jones, New York Times best-selling author of the 2018 novel An American Marriage (Algonquin Books). Jones noted that “independent bookstores combine two of my favorite things — independence and (of course) books. Every indie store is as carefully curated as a museum because the owners care about getting the right stories into the hands of the people who live in that community. Indie stores are hyper-local, yet they share thoughts from all over the world.” Books are merchandise, but reading is not only personal but an activity that connects us to other people, times and places.

Ann Patchett, bestselling author and co-owner of Parnassus Books spoke with ATG in the past about the key role of bookstores. In this quote, Patchett makes her point clearly: “Consumers control the marketplace by deciding where to spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read the book. This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”

  1. Development of deep community relationships and loyal customers. Customers need to care about you just as much as you care about them.

In Boston, one bookstore is trying a type of speed dating to attract millennials. In Cleveland, bookstores are “redefining their roles in the community, as not only as places to buy books… [but] as community hot spots that help book lovers unplug from their electronic devices, discover new reads, and meet like-minded spirits.”

As the ABA observes, “independent bookstores are not just stores, they’re community centers and local anchors run by passionate readers. They are entire universes of ideas that contain the possibility of real serendipity. They are lively performance spaces and quiet places where aimless perusal is a day well spent. In a world of tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads, bookstores are not a dying anachronism.  They are living, breathing organisms that continue to grow and expand. In fact, there are more of them this year than there were last year. And they are at your service.”

  1. Careful attention to the bottom line.

As the ABA’s statistics show, existing bookstores are thriving and new bookstores taking root across the country. In fact, book sales increased 2.6% in 2017, and another 5% in 2018. ABA’s CEO Oren Teicher believes that “it is still, to be sure, a fiercely competitive business. That upward sales trend is a testament to the ongoing commitment by indie booksellers to professional development, ongoing innovation, a strategic focus on store finances, sustained customer assistance, and community involvement. Independent bookstores have to be aggressive and entrepreneurial to remain competitive.”

ABA’s commitment to working with our publisher partners to reduce the cost of goods remains a high priority,” Teichner continues. “Please know that ABA is working on initiatives with publishing partners for the books we sell and the authors we hose. We do have a robust program for local, indie published authors, but it’s relatively small part of our overall business.”

“By 2011 every industry prognosticator was forecasting the death of print and of print focused on helping bookstores control their operational costs, and there will be no letup on this score in 2019.,” ABA reports. “We are continuing to work with our colleagues in the U.K. to bring Batch [the U.K.-based online invoicing and payment system] to the U.S, and we are working to begin the process of onboarding stores in the coming months.”

Tattered Cover

Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstores Ted Vlahos has involved himself in not only bookstore operations but “I have a second career as a published author of books for young adults. I’m traditionally published, so I have a specific viewpoint. While I do think technology and certain commercial developments have democratized publishing, we still rely heavily on our bookstores,” Vlahos continues. “By 2012-2013 ebooks, which had been growing at more than 100% per year, plateaued and have since retreated (a little bit). Through that time, and continuing to today, hardcover and trade paperback books have held their own. Only mass market paperbacks have suffered. The only place digital continues to grow is in the downloadable audio market; indie bookstores, including Tattered Cover, participate in that market through our partner Libro.FM.

  1. Creative programming to help customers develop deeper relationships and interests.

Mary Freeman’s The Cat’s Tale used book store in Schererville, Indiana “makes a point of stocking all the books on the summer reading lists of local middle and high schools and has seen parents bring in young students who eventually grow into teens and drive there on their own. Freeman notes that “I read five or six books a week, even when my children were younger. Television wasn’t all that great at the time, and books are my television. This place just reflects my love for books and cats. People work to make a living, but this is not a job. I just love it…There’s a personal touch to the bookselling,” she adds. “I have a wide knowledge of books, and people like to come in, sit down and enjoy talking to me about books. We get to know each other.

In Bowling Green, Ohio, Grounds for Thought, a used bookstore and coffee shop, is intent on becoming the “intellectual center” for their community, offering space for book clubs to meet, as well as space for quiet reading, doing puzzles, or playing board or card games. The coffee they brew is now sold in various outlets in over 40 states. “Independent bookstores, new or used, have had to be very savvy in the last two and a half decades to be able to stand out in this environment,” Kelly Wicks said recently. “It’s all about adding value. The goal is you add value to the community, people recognize that, and they support you. I don’t make money as a party host. I make money because each kid takes a book home with them.”


A recent Washington Post feature on DC-areas indies noted that “what distinguishes this new wave of bookstores is that their individual personalities shine through what they share in common…each of these shops fills a distinct and different niche that brings its audience together.”

“In the end, Paz Kaufman reflects, “customers often make purchase decisions based on who they know, like, and trust. The Shop Local movement has educated people that where they shop matters and independent booksellers have, for decades, put this at the core of their messaging.”

Paz Kaufman shares her top ten indie bookstores which provide great experiences and are doing thriving business today:


“We are physical beings,” Paz Kaufman believes, “and it’s no surprise that people enjoy browsing a bookstore, soaking up the atmosphere and discovering items that make an emotional connection.”

There are so many extraordinary bookstores in our world. Here are just a few that are on my list – and it would be great to hear some of yours! [Feel free to comment below! How do we want to handle soliciting readers ideas on best bookstores?]


Owl Bureau

Located at 5634 N. Figueroa St.. Los Angeles, CA  90042.  Connect on Instagram (@owlbureau)

Visionary illustrator, Abel Macias, is used to solving visual problems for his clients. In March he designed a massive mural on the facade of the new bookstore in Los Angeles, the Owl Bureau (and will be creating new murals for the store annually). Created by Richard Christiansen, founder of advertising agency Chandelier Creative, the bookstore was conceived “as a temple to printed matter.” And the building has already attracted design attention from the LA Times  and other outlets for its original design and homage to both the content and visual arts of the book.  “You can sit with a beautiful glass of wine and indulge your senses in this space between what Starbucks has become for people and a member’s club,” Christiansen has said. “It felt so unusual to be welcomed somewhere warmly and have it not feel transactional, not be rushed to buy something, instead being allowed to soak it up.”

As he explained to the NY Times, the ‘joy of printed books’, “is that you really feel as though you can wrap your arms around craft and culture in the world — to really appreciate not just what’s in those books, but the craft and skill that goes into making them.”

As the LA Times cooed, “the for-sale selection at the Owl is museum-like and inviting, comprising 100-plus titles from Christiansen’s personal collection plus a thousand others curated with the assistance of New York’s Mast Books, whose interiors titles have long attracted him because they feel, he said, “super tasteful and really, really smart, yet not so academic that I don’t feel welcomed.” They’re arranged with covers, not spines, out to fuel dialogue, and the selection changes weekly, curated as a mood board with itinerant themes — from roses to Italian furniture.”


Located at: 37 rue de la Bûcherie 75005 Paris, France

Since 1919 Shakespeare and Company has operated an English-language bookstore – now two – on Paris’ Left Bank. Vanity Fair has called this “perhaps the most famous independent bookstore in the world…a literary utopia, where money takes a backseat and generations of writers—Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, William Styron, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, among others—have found a Paris home.” Located across the Seine from the Cathedral of Norte Dame, and not far from Place Saint-Michel, Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Latin Quarter. The shop is a regular on tours of the city and hosts a variety of programs and speakers. Who could pass up this home of some of the giants of literature – or their impressive holdings.  ATG contacted the bookseller, however they were too busy to give us some time for an interview!

Shakespeare & Company – Paris


Located at: Dominicanerkerkstraat 1, 6211 CZ Maastricht

Imagine a beautiful church over 700 years old turned into a bookstore! This gothic monastery church was consecrated in 1294. It was the first gothic structure in the Low Countries and remained with the Dominicans until they were expelled by Napoleonic troops in 1796, notes an article in Art Marketing Magazine. After this, the building was used to stable animals, for exhibits and then as a bike shed….until in 2014, when it became this bookshop in the heart of Maastricht. Book shelves line the walls of this still-impressive building lined with frescoes on the walls and beautiful patterns of light from the windows.  And, yes, the store is pet-friendly, so you may see a few dogs as well. “Our collection contains new and second-hand books, including books in English, French, Spanish, German and Italian. On the first floor you find our music department with CD’s, DVD’s, and Vinyl (LP’s).” In January 2008, the London Guardian chose this as “the fairest bookshop of the world.”


In her book, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit describes the reading experience in this way: “The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resides, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that beats only in the chest of another.”  Many would describe their bookstores in a similar manner.

Canadian writer Lynn Coady in her 2016 book Who Needs Books? Reading in the Digital Age, once asked her Twitter contacts “as book lovers—to describe to me what exactly the quality of the experience of reading a book was that they so loved? I have to tell you, I was honestly not expecting that so many of the people who replied—these dedicated users of social media—would speak unprompted and with such reverence and affection about the tactile pleasures of the physical book itself. I was expecting lofty descriptions of purely intellectual experiences. Communion with the writer’s mind. Immersion in imaginary worlds. Absorption in language. And I did get that. But I got just as much, if not more, rhapsodizing on qualities like smell. The texture of pages beneath the fingers. The creak of a fresh binding being broken. And it wasn’t just the physicality of the book itself that was lauded. Often it was the physical pleasures surrounding the ritual of reading a book. People talked about the beverages they like to have on hand when they read. The weight of a new stack in a bag, being carried home from the bookstore. The satisfaction of seeing them lined up on a shelf, waiting to be read. The physical activity of ‘curling up’ with a book was evoked multiple times.”

Boekhandel Doninicanen

Ton Harmes, Director of the Boekhandel Dominicanen  explains that “most important [aspect] of our bookshop is the fact that we have become not only a bookshop but a third place location for many people. Maybe it is the best compliment a retailer/bookseller can get when his customer tells him ‘Oh I was in your shop today not to buy (what I normally do) but because I just wanted to be there’.”

Reflecting on the success of his store, Harmes discloses that “in our strategy we have found out that we are basing ourselves on two articles of the Dutch Constitution. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Print. And we are the private place where, one could say, all the ‘truth’ and opinions meet and visitors can make their choice and we are a meeting point for debate, for other cultural happenings, discussions, presentations etc. etc. And we are a private place open to everybody and when we make the right selection for our customers, they will come and buy and come back. Important is the role of the bookseller who with his buying creates an assortment that our customers like and somehow expect to find even though they like to be surprised as well.”

“The research I’ve read indicates people enjoy browsing bookstores (vs. browsing online) and this is purely about discovery and the physical engagement with books,” says Paz Kaufman. “At Story & Song (our own bookstore), the books you’ll find on display are carefully chosen and carefully placed. All of those books are off-the-beaten path “little gems” that most people have never heard about, but they discover and buy them on the spot. These are books that make people smile, help them feel so not alone, prompt a question, or simply offer a delightful way to spend an afternoon reading. We sell a lot of books as gifts and many of these purchase decisions are made in these small focal point displays throughout the store.”

As a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer article noted, “people predicted independent bookstores would be buried by big box stores like Walmart, Barnes & Noble, and Borders. Then they said Amazon would kill visits to and demand for brick-and-mortar bookstores.”  The article goes on to quote Suzanne DeGaetano, co-owner of Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry. “I think that the industry course-corrected after Borders closed. After Borders closed, customers who wanted to shop locally found the existing bookstores and began patronizing us. Mac’s Backs has several income streams that have enabled us to grow and thrive,” she said. ”Mac’s also loves bringing our books on the road. We have sold books offsite at over 70 different locations, including libraries and other venues, and we partner with nonprofits to bring books to their special events. Mac’s sells books online on our website, and we also take pre-orders for books that will be popular with our customers.”


With this level of innovation and – yes – spunk, bookstores have little to fear about in terms of their future. About one hundred years ago, William Lyon Phelps taught the first American university course on the modern novel. He famously said that “the happiest people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Interesting thoughts can live only in cultivated minds. Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good books, good pictures, good plays at the theater, good company, good conversation – what are they? They are the happiest people in the world; and they are not only happy in themselves, they are the cause of happiness in others.”

“Despite the ongoing elegizing of media pundits and commentators, assuring us that everything book culture represents—reading, literacy, imagination, empathy and human communication—is going the way of the independent bookstore,” Coady reminds her readers, “recent numbers from the publishing industry demonstrate that overall book sales are relatively stable, and that consumers are reading as much as ever. This despite mass bookstore closures, a publishing industry locked in perpetual battle with the Amazon goliath, dwindling book review sections in newspapers and, of course, dwindling newspapers themselves.”

On Saturday, April 27th, ABA’s fifth Independent Bookstore Day (IBD) will be celebrated at over 575 bookstores across the country.  A wonderful opportunity to explore some of the riches in your own backyard. An anonymous comment posted to a recent Washington Post article postulates that “small book stores will be around as long as there human civilization. Amazon may disappear someday but not bookstores and libraries.”  One can but hope.


“We are physical beings,” Paz Kaufman believes, “and it’s no surprise that people enjoy browsing a bookstore, soaking up the atmosphere and discovering items that make an emotional connection.”


So, now it’s over to you!  What are your favorite bookstores, pleasures with books and reading?  Do you have a bucket list of bookstores or libraries you hope to visit in your lifetime?  Feel free to share your thoughts with other readers by “starting the discussion” below. I can then add your favorites to this article and create an active list that we can all share.   

Nancy K. Herther is Sociology/Anthropology librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.


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