Indie Bookstores

The bookstore essence seeped into my bones as a child and never left. I distinctly remember when I was about 8 years old and my mother took me to a small bookstore at our local mall, well before the bloom of mega-bookstores. The dim lighting and blue carpet stirred mysterious excitement in my chest. Colorful spines wound down the aisles, trails blanketed by the scent of paper. 

As my mother perused covers of bare-chested men and ladies in tight bodices, I walked along the children’s book section, transfixed by the sheer mass of options at my literal fingertips. I picked out a book called The Hunky-Dory Dairy, mostly because I misread the title as “diary” and anticipated a book full of secrets. 

This random childhood day imprinted in my memory somewhat thanks to my embarrassing reading gaffe, but more because of the joy I felt wandering the bookstore and the promise of adventure thriving beneath each glossy cover.

As I grew up, so did bookstores. They exploded into monstrosities called Books-A-Million, Borders and Barnes & Noble. These new book meccas marked the so-called end of the independent bookstore. Beginning in the 1990s, Borders grew from 21 stores to over 400 before the chain eventually went bankrupt. While independent bookstores dropped 40% between 1995 to 2000.

As the world eased into the 21st century, the large chain bookstores started to supernova and shrink back in on themselves, a contraction often attributed to the rise of Amazon online book sales and ebooks. The hole left by the brick-and-mortar large bookstore departures was not filled solely by digital book formats. It turns out, people still like print. 

In fact, recent research indicates digital books are not the dominant book force that was once anticipated. Between 2015 and 2016, just a single year, ebooks declined from 27% to 23% of all total books sales. In addition, approximately two times as many people read print books compared with ebooks and only 6% of Americans are digital-only readers. 

Conversely, independent booksellers in the last few years are flourishing. According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a non-profit trade organization for independent booksellers, from 2009 to 2015 the number of independently owned bookstores increased by 35%. Over the last year alone, the ABA reported a 4% increase in indie bookstores nationwide, marking the ninth year of growth in a row. In Virginia, the ABA has over 55 registered booksellers listed in their member directory. (www.bookweb.org)

Other dire predictions for a final deathblow to bookstores also have not quite come to fruition, such as the rise of social media. Some futurists claimed our obsessions with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram might indirectly result in a decline in book consumption, particularly among high social media consumers such as millennials and young adults.

Thus far, there is little evidence of a negative social media impact on book reading. In fact, Pew Research found young adults, aged 18 to 29, are more likely to not only read books, but to read print books, compared with people 65 and older.  

The resilience of print may be one reason for the comeback of the independent bookstore, but it is likely not the only one. Another potential component for their recent success: community. 

Unlike their big chain counterparts, indie bookstores are not nameless, faceless corporations. The owners and staff often live in the same neighborhoods as their customers and invest in the health of the local cities or towns. Essentially, indie bookstores care about the community and the community cares about them. Bookstores host authors and book clubs. They organize events, including sponsoring festivals or holding poetry readings. Indie bookstores remind us books are not simply a commodity, they can be a means for bringing people together. 

Virginia has no shortage of fantastic indie bookstores spread across the state, nestled in towns and communities. If you haven’t already visited one, perhaps it’s time. 

K.L. Kranes is a blogger and author of young adult novels. Her debut novel, The Travelers, was published in 2016 by Saguaro Books, LLC. See more from K.L. at www.klkranes.com/blog.