A brutal recession can change the economic landscape, but not always in the way people assumed it would. Six years ago, independent bookstores seemed destined to follow travel agents into the remainder bin. In 2009, the American Booksellers Association dipped down to 1,401 members. Borders shuttered hundreds of stores across the country, and Barnes & Noble started to teeter. If those big guys couldn’t survive, the conventional wisdom went, what chance did Mom & Pop Bookseller have?
It turns out, better than most of us expected. Despite the nation’s lackluster recovery, the number of indie bookstores has increased by more than a 25 percent since those dark days of 2009.
What accounts for this burst of literary entrepreneurialism?
Instead of heralding the industry’s doom, the death of Borders may have helped clear away competition. Other observers point to new interest in farmers markets and all things local. And maybe, like the prospect of hanging, the possibility of bankruptcy concentrated the minds of bookstore owners and inspired them to smarter, more creative merchandising.
However we got to this happy state, it’s worth celebrating, which is exactly the point of Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday, May 2. This new nationwide holiday stems from a program started last year by California indie bookstores. Now, more than 400 stores from Alaska to Maine are preparing for a full day of programs, entertainment and food to highlight their value.
But couldn’t you get everything online? No.
Part of the genius of Independent Bookstore Day is a clever line of literary gifts that can be purchased only at participating stores on May 2. These include signed prints by graphic novelist Chris Ware and Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey, a Roz Chast tote bag, a signed collection of essays by “Bad Feminist” Roxane Gay, and a set of tea towels with wry sayings by Lemony Snicket and Pat Conroy.
Washington area bookstores will be enthusiastic participants in Saturday’s festivities.
Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose, says, “Independent Bookstore Day is meant to celebrate all that indies stand for: personal service, author talks, the experience of browsing, the joy of discovery, a sense of community.” (Considering the special items that will be for sale, Graham has his eye on a set of “Stripey Throx” — three socks — inspired by a favorite expletive from Christopher Moore’s “Fool.”)
Graham confirms that the industry-wide gloom of a few years ago has lifted. “Indies are definitely back,” he says, “with revenues rising and the number of stores increasing, as well. That’s a testament to how much people continue to value not only physical books but the local, community-oriented bookstores that sell them.”
P&P has a packed lineup of activities planned for Saturday at the main store in Northwest Washington and its satellite stores at Busboys & Poets restaurants. You’ll find special foods and drinks, a literary costume party, a brunch starring famous writers and a talk by President Obama’s inauguration poet, Elizabeth Alexander.
Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle is celebrating Indie Bookstore Day, too. It’s planning a raffle for merchandise and a contest to pick the most popular Kramerbooks T-shirt design.
Events director Sarah Baline describes the store’s business as healthy. “There seems to be a real increased awareness about the ‘shop local’ movement,” she says. “Customers come to us first, make us part of their routine. More people are coming to realize the value of independent businesses and want to become regulars.”
For Baline, the secret is a diversified business model. “Independent bookstores are not just places to buy books,” she says. “We are community centers, gathering places and event spaces. Kramerbooks, especially with the full bar and restaurant, exemplifies the concept of a ‘third place’ for our community. A deep discount is no competition!”
My personal favorite among the special items that will be for sale this Saturday is the signed cartoon by Allie Brosh that reads, “Maybe everything isn’t hopeless bull–.” On a day like Independent Bookstore Day, maybe not.