The Indie Bookstore Renaissance (and Why it Matters to Writers)

indie bookstore

The Indie bookstore has always been a paradise for book lovers, offering a browsing experience unmatched by many other retailers. And if you are a writer of literary fiction, an important market for your work.

Just mind your way around the outdoor book carts on the way in; smell the old yellowing pages; listen to the creak of wooden floors; the tallness of shelves that have a tendency to envelop, and you will know that these things cannot easily be recreated elsewhere or online.

Or you might even see near-exact replicas of Fred Armisen’s “Candace” and Carrie Brownstein’s “Toni” in a Portlandia sketch about two feminist bookstore owners in Portland and have to look twice! 

Although in the face of chain stores and online retailers, it has saddened many readers to know that the indie bookstore has been struggling for a long time. We have gone from what might once have been many thousands of independent bookstores in the United States, down to 2,321 independent bookstores, as reported by the American Bookseller’s Association.

Just the other day, Book Culture—an independent chain of four bookstores in New York City—announced that they would need a $500,000 cash infusion to keep their chain of four stores going.

So this all begs the question: how could an indie bookstore “renaissance” possibly be on the way? The answers might actually surprise you…

A historical view of independent bookstores
First, it might be important to look back on where indie bookstores came from.

Historically, indie bookstores met the needs that book clubs could not, and vise versa. Independent bookstores and book clubs used to be very big and important among publishers and readers. Publishers proudly sold club rights for books to the major clubs and indie bookstores could help make a book into a bestseller.

In searching out an independent bookstore before the internet age, it was very difficult for a farmer in a remote area of the country to drive dozens of miles, just to find a store that might or might not have what they were looking for.

Even though indie bookstores have always been a place for a sense of community, it was seldom a realistic place for those from far away. Book clubs, such as The Book of the Month Club and the Doubleday Book Club (both of which are still around today), rose up to meet the needs of those individuals looking for a sense of community while reading in the comfort of their homes.

On a regular basis, readers could know that they were receiving a carefully curated list of quality books to read and that there were others around the country reading those same books.

For those that lived in towns close enough to independent bookstores, the indies were important hubs to gain a sense of community, have the book browsing experience and to receive in-store book recommendations.

Many bookstores were independently or family-owned, making them important staples within a town’s larger working community. For those reasons and many others, there used to be way more independent bookstores—before chain bookstores, mass merchandise retailers, big box stores and online retailers entered the picture.

Is that not the nature of capitalism, though? Big fish eats the little one and all? That does not change the fact that many communities still have the same needs that places such as Barnes & Noble have tried to fill.

The Barnes & Noble purchase
While indie bookstores exist for book lovers, many subscribing to the doom and gloom of the state of book retail still believe indies could end up as mausoleums to books. Though if indie bookstores end up as tombs for books, then Barnes & Noble could end up being the Taj Mahal if something were to happen to the chain bookstore…

Now with the news that Barnes & Noble might have a potential buyer in Waterstones Books, new hope has been renewed by readers and publishers. Waterstones being the United Kingdom’s equivalent of Barnes & Noble, could make for a bookstore that was more mindful of the tastes of readers in a traditional bookstore setting.

Readerlink had also joined the running as a potential bidder. If successful, this could make Barnes & Noble into more of a data-driven company as Readerlink is very much about drilling down into the data of book-buying habits. However, there is some talk that Readerlink may now be backing out of their potential bid for Barnes & Noble.

So things could easily go awry again for Barnes & Noble in its long and turbulent history—thereby creating an opening for independent bookstores to fill the need that book clubs once did for the indies.

With Barnes & Noble currently on life support, while it tries to get out of many of its leases, its current CEO, Len Riggio is backing out. Some independent bookstores are slowly and steadily filling in the gaps in the book market in cities and small towns, making for something of a small renaissance among a few indie booksellers.

Small towns and neighborhoods in cities will still need their local bookstore, offering a unique and highly-curated book browsing experience—as well as a sense of community, especially after some of Barnes & Noble is already gone.

Indie bookstores as the new vinyl record shops
For those who have experienced the toxicity of social media and internet addiction, indie bookstores have become a respite from their online suffering and a way to reconnect with humanity. 

In reconnecting with people and a larger community surrounding books, people are also reconnecting with physical books as a means to get away from screens and the coldness of technology. Only a few online book communities such as Bookstr have risen to meet the challenge of creating a strong online community for book lovers. 

Whereas much of the readership of commercially-driven genre fiction—such as romance, science fiction and thrillers have moved out of reading mass market paperbacks and into the eBook reading space,—literary fiction is making a comeback and thriving among readers in hardcover and trade paperback books.

The hardcover book, even in the age of eBooks, remains a technology that has been perfected for the reading experience, much in the same way that vinyl records make for the ultimate music listening experience for music aficionados. 

It is easy to draw comparisons between music and books. Just see how some music connoisseurs believe good music deserves its time and should contain a highly-tactile experience; in dusting off vinyl records and dropping the needle before later flipping a record.

Much in the same way, serious readers want to hear the sound of turning pages; see the shine of foiled & embossed letters on a dust jacket; or touch the texture of deckled edges; maybe even the use of French flaps to lovingly bookmark a page, rather than haphazardly dog-earing the book. 

Other readers, like collectors of vinyl introducing a record at a party, are still looking to hold a book adoringly and be seen reading it on the subway. This all ties back to how, according to Forbes, the vinyl record industry has grown into the hundreds of millions and is headed toward the billions, thanks in part to vinyl record stores.

As a writer, it’s important to ponder how the same could happen for printed books at indie bookstores among hipsters and millennials, even in the internet age.

Some thoughts in closing
It might sometimes look bleak for independent bookstores, but book publishing has been obsessed with predicting its own demise, ever since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. Back then people thought that would be the end of books as they knew them, but that was only the beginning of something new. 

We already know that indie bookstores are important to the larger book community of readers as history has shown us time and time again. There are a number of events that could bring on an indie bookstore renaissance, namely the continued fallout of Barnes & Noble or a continued movement of millennials toward the celebration of the physical book and independent bookstore. 

However one might feel about whether or not we are due for another indie bookstore renaissance, it is clear that there is a love for books among many readers and bookstores are a place to celebrate that. 

Why else would Indie Bookstore Day, with nearly 600 bookstores partying in participation exist?

Even more than that, bookstores are often the canary in the coal mine when it comes to the health of how much people are reading and the ways in which they find books and a sense of community. This is very much in the same way WritetoDone has become an online community for book lovers and writers. 

Do you think Indie Bookstores are important for writers? Or readers? Do you visit your local indie bookstore? Let me know in the comments.

About the author

Mark Gottlieb

Literary agent Mark Gottlieb currently works at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group. Mark has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on in Overall Deals and other categories.