“It’s going well, we’re in a great neighborhood,” she says. “Where else do you get to meet such fun people?”
In the District, Politics and Prose, which looked like it might go out of business last year when its longtime owners were retiring, is thriving under new management. In Richmond, the landmark Narnia bookstore underwent a similar transformation late last year, reborn as Bbgb under new owners Jill Stefanovich and Jenesse Evertson. In Nashville, author Ann Patchett and business partner Karen Hayes are gearing up to open Parnassus Books this fall. And in Hawthorne, N.J., a former Internet technology consultant named Bill Skees has been sitting behind the counter at Well Read, his very own store, for the past 10 months.
“From a financial perspective, it was a step down to open a bookstore, but it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” he says.
These quirky anecdotes are the underpinnings of one of the unlikeliest of business stories: The small, independently owned bookstore is staging a modest rebirth in the midst of a bone-killing economy and the exponential growth of online retailers and e-books.
The American Booksellers Association, the national trade organization for independently owned bookstores, counted a 7 percent growth last year and has gained 100 new members i n the past six months. The association now counts 1,830 member stores across the country, up by 400 since 2005, according to Meg Smith, the association’s spokeswoman. The new stores have opened in at least 35 states, from New York to California, an indication that store owners across the nation see an opportunity to find a concrete niche in the e-book world.
“The takeaway is that independent bookselling is still a desirable profession and it’s sustainable,” Smith says.
Smith says the growth appears to be due to a number of factors — the demise of large bookstores; a general social identification with locally owned businesses, an offshoot of the ‘go-local’ movement in restaurants and grocery stores; and a number of store owners who have identified a small but viable market in their communities.
The steady growth is surprising, as the number of independent stores had shrunk by as much as 30 percent in the early part of the decade, hit hard by the growth of big box stores and by online sellers such as Amazon, where the supply was almost limitless. E-readers, such as the Kindle and Nook, had further put a dent in brick-and-mortar businesses. Lastly, the recession of the past two years has cast a shadow over the entire retail market.
But, while Smith says that “no one knows if we’ve hit the bottom,” a small tribe of devoted book lovers with a business bent say that the economic setting has been right for small, highly personal ventures.