For years bookstores have been the repository of, along with books, a lot of highly romantic feelings. They crop up in fictional settings rather more often than their retail peers; the list of examples is long and charming and includes the Shop Around the Corner (You’ve Got Mail), the Travel Book Co. (Notting Hill) and Women and Women First (Portlandia). Part of that appeal lies in the sense that bookstores, especially independent ones, belong to a bygone era–there’s a delicious moribund melancholy about them. Last chance to see.
Ironically that reputation may have contributed to an unexpected plot twist, which is that independent bookstores are actually really healthy. In May the American Booksellers Association informed a grieving public that last year the number of its member stores actually increased, from 1,712 to 1,775. Counting multiple locations, the total climbed to 2,311. You can’t even call it a fluke, because this is the seventh straight year it’s happened.
The numbers are growing because business is growing. Independent-bookstore sales were up around 5% in the first four months of this year. Indies accounted for about 10% of all books sold last year, which is up from 7% in 2014. This isn’t a reflection of good news across the broader book business: the number of Barnes & Noble stores has shrunk from 726 in 2009 to 640, and sales at the chain have slipped every year since 2012. It’s also not true in the U.K., where the number of independent bookstores (sorry, bookshops) shrank 3% last year. But apparently Americans like independent bookstores, and they like buying things there.
The revival of the neighborhood bookstore has a few different causes. Some are prosaic: new technology makes things like accounting and inventory management easier for small stores. The growth of social media makes it easier to promote events. The demise of the Borders chain in 2011 had the effect, in some markets, of taking competitive pressure off indies.
But there are other, less tangible reasons too. When Brian Lampkin followed his wife’s medical practice to Greensboro, N.C., he felt the lack of an indie bookstore downtown. “It was so clear that downtown Greensboro was coming back to life,” he says, “and I just have this prejudice that every city needs a really good independent bookstore.” So he did something about it: he renovated a beautiful brick building that dates from 1898, and in 2013 he opened Scuppernong Books there; the bookstore is paired with a wine-and-coffee café in the same space. Scuppernong stocks a literary-leaning list. “We’re letting Amazon and Barnes & Noble take care of the best sellers,” Lampkin says. “Where are you going to get poetry? Some Barnes & Nobles you walk into, you’re lucky to find Emily Dickinson.” The store now has a staff of eight.
Businesses like Scuppernong are also benefiting from a surprise twist in the story of the e-book. After Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, e-books began a relentless conquest of the book market, from 9% of unit sales in 2010 to 28% in 2013, at which point their eventual dominance began to feel like technological manifest destiny.
But the paper book–a piece of information technology that has, after all, been tested and honed over the past 2,000 years–has declined to give way that easily. Last year the share of e-books (at least the non-self-published kind) actually receded to 24%. The books market appears to have rebalanced itself into a complex mix of paper and digital, with neither format completely dominating, and plenty of room for brick-and-mortar retailers.
It’s becoming apparent that just as paper books turned out to have advantages over e-books, reality has its good points when compared with its virtual, two-dimensional shadow. Book-industry analysts talk a lot about “discovery,” by which they mean the ways people find and purchase new books. It turns out, according to consumer research by Nielsen, that the best method for book discovery is still standing in a roomful of books and browsing–ahead even of click-tracking, data-mining if-you-liked-this-you’ll-like-that algorithms.
No question, indie bookstores face challenges. Theirs is not a huge growth business. No one’s getting rich. “The most surprising thing is how many times people just say thank you,” Lampkin says. “I think they sort of get that there’s no real reason to do this other than love and commitment.” Even as indies gain ground, online retailers are booming too: their share of the book market was up 5% last year, and Amazon, which opened a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle last year, has announced a second one, in San Diego.
But if Jeff Bezos is copying you, you know you’re doing something right. “We’re trying to create that classic third space, outside all the welter of madness,” Lampkin says. “It’s tricky and hard to do. But wine helps that a lot.”
This appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of TIME.
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