Indie Bookstores Are Back, With a Passion
by Francis X. Clines
The decades of trauma suffered by independent neighborhood bookstores — damage from bargain megastores, the ascension of the e-book and Amazon’s flash delivery of cut-rate reading — hardly hindered Chris Doeblin’s search for the right place to open his fourth independent bookstore in Manhattan.
In fact those serial threats across 30 years in the business drove his search for his next “indie” locale. “We are pushed from behind and driven ahead by the pull of the future,” Mr. Doeblin said last month, explaining why his three Book Culture stores are not enough. “I have 10-year-old kids. You have to reinvent yourself.”
A reader might find his determined search a noble but counterintuitive escapade after years of watching the lights sadly go out on small neighborhood bookshops where social warmth was such a part of the browsing. But the good news is that the indies are quietly resurging across the nation, registering a growth of over 30 percent since 2009 and sales that were up around 10 percent last year, according to the American Booksellers Association, the indies’ main organization with more than 2,200 stores.
“Existing stores are selling once more to a new generation of owners,” said Oren Teicher, the A.B.A.’s chief executive officer, noting that such stores could never be resold during the gloomiest years, when they were under threat from Barnes & Noble and then later, Internet sales. The indies now find that readers are looking for life beyond their computer screens. They want to embrace books in all three dimensions and to select them in a tactile, less anonymous marketplace. Booksellers are fellow readers who converse knowledgeably and jot down their current favorites on helpful bookshelf notes.
“It’s a more holistic consumerism,” says Mr. Doeblin, describing the bookstore resurgence as part of the explosion of the localism movement that finds young new farmers delivering fresh produce to Main Street markets. “The computer screen just hurts; you need a real book in your hand,” he says. “People become antisocial through technology and social media.”
Mr. Doeblin relished opening his third Book Culture store in 2014 on the upper West Side only a few blocks from a Barnes & Noble that was reportedly struggling to survive in the face of Amazon. He had giant advance notices emblazoned on the windows announcing: “You’ve Got Mail, New York! You’re Going to Get Another Independent Book Store!” He was delighted to find eager customers when it opened, and now has 15,000 people registered for discounts. The store holds various social activities and sells plenty of products like stationery, greeting cards, children’s games and toys, even backpacks — all part of the merchandise of most successful bookstores nowadays.
Mr. Doeblin has no idea what form the competitive threat will take next — Amazon drones delivering books to Broadway apartments? But he’s been walking through assorted neighborhoods, convinced that a fourth Book Culture store can hold its own among the sorts of customers who savor true community as much as a good read.