The five finalists hoping to be named Bookstore of the Year look like impossibly unequal competitors. Located in big cities and small towns from Florida to Washington state, some of them are multi-store giants, while others are little sanctuaries. But each one has a chance of winning the title because size isn’t what counts in this annual competition conducted by Publishers Weekly. The judges — authors and publishing insiders — are looking for heart — along with excellence in hand-selling, community involvement, management-employee relations and merchandising.

Judith Rosen, Publishers Weekly’s bookselling editor, said this year’s finalists are “an eclectic list because it’s sometimes an author’s favorite store or sometimes a regional director executive’s hometown store, or it’s sometimes a great store that has slipped through the cracks. And even though the awards have been around for 22 years, it doesn’t seem like we’ve got to all the great ones yet.” (A store can win only once; Washington’s Politics & Prose joined this triumphant group years ago.)

As a St. Louis native, I was delighted to hear that my neighborhood store, Left Bank Books, made a strong showing in the early round this year. The staff members attracted national praise for their response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August. “We got a slew of nominations for Left Bank Books,” Rosen said. “A lot of colleagues in the book industry agreed that Left Bank — in the wake of Ferguson — had gone above and beyond.”

Before the winner is announced in early April, each of the five finalists will submit a portfolio to impress the judges. The reward — publicity in Publishers Weekly and at the Book Expo convention in May — is certainly valuable, but this is a distinctly cordial competition. You won’t hear any trash talk among these idealistic managers and owners. Cristina Nosti, director of events and marketing at Books & Books in Florida, one of the finalists, captured the spirit well when she said, “Every bookstore in the world is special and has its own brand of magic.”

We asked all the finalists to tell us a bit about what makes their bookstores special:


A crowd waited in a line eight blocks long to meet President Clinton at Books & Books in 2004. (Susie Horgan)

Books & Books, Coral Gables, Fla.
People of all generations and socioeconomic backgrounds connect to books and reading through our year-round, live author event programming at all of our stores and our ongoing partnerships with civic, educational and cultural organizations. Every day of the year, Monday through Sunday, Books & Books hosts an author event LIVE and thereby keeps a conversation about ideas going, bringing books and their authors to the forefront of people’s imaginations and igniting their curiosity for the world and for each other. This is what drives us and elevates our standing as a general bookstore to a kind of “heaven on earth” that makes us feel special, even as we are engaged in a very mundane business of selling books. We like to think that the experiences we create for our customers truly and essentially bring joy, fruition and meaning to their lives on a very real and daily level. — Cristina Nosti, director of events & marketing


Inside Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo. (Courtesy of Left Bank Books)

Left Bank Books, St. Louis
We consider ourselves community members first. Left Bank Books serves St. Louis not just as a bookstore, but as a meeting place that sparks an ongoing conversation about the topics most relevant to our community. From our River City Readers program, which focuses on giving children access to books in the home, to our #BlackLivesMatter reading list and #FergusonReads discussion group, created to put the specific events of this summer’s protests in a broader context, we provide St. Louisans with a safe space to access information and use it to work toward a stronger city. Everyday, we endeavor to prove that bookstores have the capability and the responsibility to provoke deep and productive thought. — Wintaye Gebru, store manager


McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich. (Courtesy of McLean & Eakin)

McLean & Eakin, Petoskey, Mich.
My wife, Jessilynn, and I bought the store from my mother in 2010. Our store is located in a small rural community of 5,000 (if you look at a map, you’ll see we are on the way to and from nowhere), yet we manage to bring amazing authors to our area for events. We give 10 percent of any customer purchase to an area school or nonprofit. To date, this has raised over $120,000 in donations. We work with area schools to coordinate author events for schools, and we run book fairs at schools in four surrounding counties. We offer 99-cent shipping anywhere in the United States. We offer a substantial ebook and digital audiobook selection at painfully competitive prices. The employees of McLean & Eakin are deeply dedicated to finding the best books possible for our customers. I had a customer tell me that she felt our staff “feel like it is a matter of life and death that they find the perfect book for me.” This is what we strive for, and we have a lot of fun doing it! — Matt Norcross, co-owner


Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore. (Courtesy of Powell’s Books)

Powell’s Books, Portland, Ore.
At Powell’s, we have a lofty mission: to be the world’s best destination for readers, a place that fosters a culture of reading and connects people with the books they’ll love. Stepping into Powell’s is a transformative experience: Our flagship location houses over a million titles and takes up an entire city block. Die-hard bibliophiles and casual readers alike easily become captivated by the power of the written word while exploring our stores. — Kim Sutton, director of marketing


Village Books & Paper Dreams in Bellingham, Wash. (Courtesy of Village Books)

Village Books & Paper Dreams, Bellingham, Wash.
The people who work here are smart, generous and extremely engaged. It’s the compliment we hear most often about the store: “You have great people working here.” — Chuck Robinson, c0-founder, president/chief executive of Village Books & Paper Dreams