Telling stories

The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of The Independent Bookstore

Posted by southwrite on June 3, 2014

Hortons Books Front

With the bankruptcy of Borders Books a few years ago and rumors that Barnes & Noble could face a similar fate, book lovers have been anxious. I confess I’m one of them. I adore bookstores and was almost a weekly visitor to the Borders that once operated near my house. I loved sitting in the café, drinking coffee and reading a book I had discovered amidst the shelves. So, I was saddened when the store closed and I had to say good bye to the employees that I had come to regard as friends.

When Borders closed it was easy enough for readers to find one of the rival’s stores. A shutdown of B&N could mean that a good section of the population would no longer have access to a real bookstore. For a lot of people that probably won’t matter. Some studies have found that one-third of high school graduates and 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after leaving school. Among those who do read, their books are coming from the ultimate bookstore killer –

Bestselling author Michael Levin wroteB&N has been closing about 20 stores per year since 2012 and has said it will continue to do so for the next several years. But its financial position is bleak.

I hope Barnes & Noble finds a way to survive. If it doesn’t though it won’t mean the end of the bookstore as we know it. One encouraging sign has been the rise of the independent, not just in big cities, but in small towns where you would least expect them. A couple of decades ago, the big bookstore chains (Borders, Barnes & Noble and a few others ) almost succeeded in putting them out of business. They came in with discounted book prices the mom and pops couldn’t match. They offered spacious airy stores and cafes that invited you to stop and sit for a while. Many independents closed, including some very big stores.

Hortons Books InsideThe decline and fall of the chains has now been followed by a dramatic rise of the indies. They’re back thanks in part to the fall of Borders, which opened space in a number of urban areas for newcomers to survive. You can also credit a newly invigorated “buy local” movement among book lovers as another reasons they’re back.

These days there are independent bookstores nearly everywhere.

Lack of competition and uniqueness are two factors powering the success of A Novel Experience, a successful shop in the tiny West Georgia town of Zebulon. Here you see a trend that has taken hold in small towns seeking to draw customers back to their downtowns. The chamber brought in a consultant to figure out what types of stores were most likely to proper here. The town and local property owners began sprucing up the urban core and recruited unique businesses that could attract customers from other counties and maybe even bigger cities.

A Novel Experience opened here four years ago and quickly built a loyal clientele that thinks nothing of driving miles to check out its offerings. Customers can browse through shelves lined with 20,000 new and used books and relax with a cup of coffee in front of the fireplace. They also host a Drop-in Book Club on the first Thursday of every month.

The successful indie doesn’t just sell books anymore. Sharp proprietors know their audience and cater to their tastes with author readings, special events and stocking the kinds of books they’re looking to buy. .

Further west in the city of Carrollton, visitors to Adamson Square can find not one, but two bookstores, just steps from each other. Horton’s Books &Underground Books Gifts was established in the 1892 and remains Georgia’s oldest bookstore and the longest surviving business in town for that matter. As you might expect, the open airy store is heavy with charm and character. Several “store cats” wander in and out as they please. There’s also stores about a ghost who haunts the premises, but doesn’t seem to bother customers much. There’s a small café called the News Stand just off the main store where you can sit a while and read magazines with your coffee and dessert.

Just around the corner on Alabama Street and down set of concrete steps is the below street level Underground Books. This store specializes in the hard to find and antique. Its owner also does a thriving business in converting old books into journals. The cover and a few end pages are wrapped around thick paper stock providing you with a writing pad of considerable antiquarian charm.

In a nod to the power of Amazon, both offer on-line ordering for their customers.

After visiting these stores I came away with renewed confidence that the bookstore that I loved wasn’t going away. I might have to drive further to get there, but the experience of browsing through tall shelves and coming upon on a treasure isn’t going away. It’s still there for those who want to look for it.


7 Responses to “The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of The Independent Bookstore”

  1. We have a wonderful independent bookstore in downtown Binghamton, New York, where I work. And, I recently got in touch with the owner of an independent bookstore in Wichita, KS which I frequented some 30 years ago when I lived there. I was thrilled to find they were still in business. I have tweeted and shared this post on Facebook.

  2. Yeah to the Indies! A second branch of a independent just opened here in Phoenix, along with a book bar. So excited about that.

  3. I’m glad to hear that independent stores are doing well, and love the ones around me. Going online to choose a book is fast and convenient but nothing beats being able to go inside a store and browse along with other book lovers. 🙂

  4. Having worked in a few book stores over the years, I can tell you what killed Borders and weakened B&N. WE did along with coffee and comfy couches. Did you buy that book you sat and read in the coffee shop? Most people who came into “my” store didn’t buy the books. They mooched. They sat and read magazines and every night the evening staff spent hours gathering up and reshelving books and mags. Kids sat in the kiddie section and played with the toys and destroyed books. Every Saturday one man came in, plunked down on “his” couch, took off his shoes and read until he fell asleep. Then he got up and left. Books were ruined by spilled coffee. A homeless man manhandled at least 10 manga novels a day. In the “old” days you went into a book store, browsed, bought a book or mag and LEFT. Let me repeat that: You BOUGHT a book and left. Sure, Amazon certainly has played a role in killing the brick and mortar book stores, but look in the mirror when looking for someone to blame.

  5. tammyyoga said

    Thanks for posting this. I was a book store addict for the longest time. In England, there is a town, Hay-On-Wye, of book stores one after the other. A village really of used book stores, but it was one of my favorite places to visit. I love the idea of getting a book and reading it by a cozy fire. Unfortunately ordering online is just way too convenient!

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