LITERARY ARTIFACTS: The Indie Linings Playbook

Recently I had the great fortune to travel across America to read in some of her greatest independent bookstores. From Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi to Politics & Prose in Washington D.C., I spoke with booksellers who have been at this for decades. They have outlasted Borders, are hanging tough with Barnes & Noble, and are refusing to flinch as Amazon closes in on all sides. How do these underdogs keep on picking up yardage when the game seems hopelessly stacked against them?

A great bookstore can be, to borrow a phrase from Hemingway, a “clean well-lighted place,” in other words, somewhere bright and pleasant where people can pass their time. Many readers know the joy of spending an hour, or four, just browsing some well-manicured shelves. Whereas spending just two minutes clicking around in the Amazon Marketplace is liable to make you hurl a Kindle at the wall. (No, I have all those Loorie Moore books already. No, I would not want to read the new Norah Roberts instead! No, I do not want a Studs in Spurs wall calendar from 2011!)

But beyond fundamentals such as mastering the art of what Beatrice.com blogger Ron Hogan calls “The Handsell”, what are the top indie stores doing to stay relevant?

This month Square Books, in Oxford, Mississippi, was named Bookstore of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly and it’s not hard to see why. From just one small store in 1979, they’ve now expanded to three locations, all close in the town square. There is Square Books itself, which features two spacious floors of fiction and nonfiction, including an entire wall dedicated to the works of William Faulkner, who lived in Oxford for most of his writing life. Hanging above the staircase are signed photos of Ann Patchett, Michael Chabon, and many other authors who have passed through. Then there is Off Square Books, just a block away, dedicated to lifestyle books. Just around the corner is the original store, which has now become Square Books Jr., filled with children’s books.

To pay for all that footage, Square Books pulls in crowds of Ole Miss students, tourists, and townsfolk. Since 2000 they have produced the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour either at the store or at the local opera house, with live jazz and blues music from local musicians and short readings by authors from new books. Locals pour in to see the weekly show, and others listen in on Rebel Radio 92.1 FM and Mississippi Public Radio, reminded often to shop at Square Books whenever they’re in Oxford next.

At Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, events are held not just in the evenings for adult readers, but also during the daytime for parents eager to bring little ones out into the world for a sing-a-long. A stoic staff member stands outside to guard the legion of parked strollers and by the end of story hour there is hardly a child departing without new books in hand. Nearby Community Books also welcomes young readers, with a beautiful garden and a host of indoor pets. (Note, the cat does not like to be touched, but does like to tweet @TinyTheUsurper). And for those who can’t make it into the store? They’ll deliver locally by bicycle, for free.

Across the country at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books, survival has been all about location, location … you get the point. Originally located near the waterfront not too far from Pike’s Place Market, the bookstore saw its foot traffic steadily decline along with the neighborhood. Even though it meant abandoning their original home of 35 years, they relocated uptown to the Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2010 and business has boomed ever since.

Down in Sonoma County, Copperfield’s Books has five stores to host events, but they also draw their readers out to surrounding local businesses. A Debut Dinner ticket gets you a copy of a book by a new author and a meal at a trendy restaurant, where the author reads and mingles with diners. Or you could go in for a Debut Brew at the local beer garden, where the storytelling goes down a lot easier than the free pint of local Russian River Sour Beer. Or if you would rather dress up than down, you can go to a High Tea, where Tudor Rose tea and scones compliment a lineup of “the very best female writers.”

Getting to meet authors is still a big draw, but with so many books and readers with diverse tastes, it is harder to find guests who’ll please the masses. So the Bay Area’s “liveliest bookstore” Book Passage, in nearby Marin County does (wait for it) 600 events a year, for readers old and young. In a single day you can hear a reading, take a French class, meet in the kitchen with one of their local “Cooks with Books,” and sit in on a memoir writing seminar. With that kind of frequency the locals know that whenever they stop by something enlightening will be happening. Book Passage has found success by becoming not just a store but a community center.

Tattered Cover in Denver has taken its role as the center of a community to new lengths. When, in 2000, local police arrived at the store with a search warrant to obtain records relating to books purchased by a customer suspected of methamphetamine manufacture, the owners of Tattered Cover refused to turn over their receipts. They fought the case, at great expense, for many years, taking it all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court where Justice Bender upheld the protections of the First Amendment.

That might seem a lot of effort to protect a possible drug manufacturer, but to Tattered Cover the bookseller/bookbuyer relationship is something sacred. As they stated to their community on their blog after a judge ruled in their favor, “Imagine if the government knew what books you were reading. Would you buy a copy of Al-Qaida: The Battle Against Western Tyranny, The Anarchist’s Cookbook or Mein Kampf? Fortunately, for those of us living in Colorado, this Orwellian scenario is only a hypothetical.”

No surprise then, that when the store moved locations a few years ago, dozens of people from the community volunteered to help them move their stock, one shelf at a time. The woman who hosted my event there told me afterwards that she doesn’t technically work there. She’s actually a local librarian, but she just helps out at the store whenever she can.

Nestled out in the mountains near Vail, I found The Bookworm of Edwards, where they join Colorado Mountain College and local libraries to sponsor the One Valley, One Book program, where hundreds of local residents annually agree to read the same book so that they can discuss it with more or less anyone they encounter all year. A similar spirit lives behind the Signed First Editions Club at Politics & Prose, in Washington D.C. which offers their monthly subscribers… you guessed it, a signed first edition copy of a new book. Not only do programs like these bring in a reliable stream of monthly sales, but they reach out beyond the local community to readers around the world. I signed copies of my own book (shameless plug alert) for similar programs at three different independent stores, each of which told me they mail books to readers as far away as Australia every month.

If it seems extraordinary that someone living in Sydney would sign up for a mail-order book club in Oxford, Mississippi, that’s because it is. The indie stores don’t offer free shipping (although neither does Amazon in Australia), and Sydney certainly has plenty of its own independent bookstores. But it speaks to the relationship that some readers can feel towards their hometown booksellers — even halfway around the planet, there are loyal ex-pats willing to pay more to sustain a vibrant reading community.

These outliers can’t sustain independent stores single-handedly, but they are an indication of the type of bond that can be forged when bookstores become more than simply marketplaces or showrooms. Yes, Amazon.com can sell you practically any book on the planet, and while you’re there you can order up a birdfeeder, a snow shovel, gourmet pasta sauces, a box of Cheerios, new wiper blades, maternity clothes… etc. etc. But can it tell you about this magical perfect book by a little-known Austrian author from 1976 that is being reprinted with a new forward by that contemporary nonfiction writer you totally love? Can you step inside and thank the guy behind the counter for the tip? Can you chat with him for twenty minutes about the brilliance of chapter three, and then stick around for a discussion group about challenges facing modern poets?

Not everyone puts books or bookstores at the center of their lives in this way. But to be a reader of any stripe, in an age of on-demand streaming video, is already a choice for a path of greater resistance towards potentially richer rewards. This is the promise at the heart of every book, and in the soul of every independent bookstore: this could be your classroom, your playground, your concert hall, your cultural center. So long as this promise is renewed, month after month, year after year, neither books nor bookstores have anything to fear.

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More Literary Artifacts here.

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 — Kristopher Jansma is a writer and teacher living in New York City. His debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, was published by Viking Press in March 2013.

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