“I can’t live without cappuccino,” Thomas Jefferson famously said. No, wait, it was books he couldn’t live without (slaves, too, apparently, but we won’t go there just now.) Conventional wisdom for modern bookstores seems to be that you need 150,000 titles and a coffee bar to flourish. Conventional wisdom says the independent bookstore is a dying duck unless it’s like Denver’s Tattered Cover, superstores with cafes that outshine the chains. But suddenly small and mid-sized indies are making a comeback, with market share up two years in a row (according to Ipsos BookTrends data), apparently surviving without caffeine.
I grew up reading Christopher Morley’s Enchanted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels. When I moved to Chicago’s South Side, I came on 57th Street Books. It’s in a cramped narrow basement, a warren of small rooms, that feels like the enchanted bookshop come to life. You can find anything, from Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics or twelve different English translations of the Bible, to Helen DeWitt’s brilliant Last Samurai, which many stores don’t stock now that it’s six years old.
Another Chicago favorite of mine is Women and Children First, one of the nation’s important feminist bookstores. When I was first published, they invited me to do a reading, as they do for all new women writers in the city. No one had heard of me: my first book sold 2500 copies, but they sought me out. Thirty years old now, Women and Children keeps re-shaping itself to speak to readers.
The Raven, in Lawrence, Kansas, is a small general store with an important mystery section. When Borders moved in across the street seven years ago, everyone assumed the Raven would be the next corpse in the mystery case, but it is stronger now than ever.
Murder, Ink on Manhattan’s upper west side is the country's oldest mystery specialty store. Founded in 1972, it used to operate out of a couple of spaces leased from a parking garage. On Broadway now, it’s still small, but a successful venue.
In the neighborhood that Seattle dubs “The Center of the Universe,” Freemont Place Books is a small hip store. In the city that invented the coffee bar, where dentists and laundromats serve espresso, they do it only with books. Amazing.
The indies handsold my books when I was starting out. I’m not sure I would make it in today’s more ruthless market—I didn’t get on the Times list until my sixth book, Burn Marks, came out. Now my books are sold everywhere, and I’m delighted, but I’m happy to see my original base alive, and well.
I shop at my local independents How about you?