July 2, 2012

Declaration of Independents: An Anthem for Bookstores

Filed under: Declaration of Independents — jenny @ 4:47 pm

I can think of no better way to kick off Independents Week on my blog than with an anthem for bookstores.

After all, don’t bookstores exemplify the independence that made this┬ácountry what it is, the reason behind us having a July 4th celebration at all?

Talk about a David & Goliath struggle. Or to reference another biblical story, independent bookstores have faced more trials than Job. Chains. Online vendors. What’s next, locusts?

Now don’t get me wrong–I love a trip to Barnes & Noble. 60,000 SF of books–plus snacks–is like nirvana to me. No one can fill an events room like B&N and they do a wonderful job. While Amazon has brought me books I can’t find any other way–not to mention authors no one would have been able to find either.

Still…there’s something about an independent bookstore. A place you know you’ll never see anywhere else, reflecting its unique location, the unique tastes of the staff that buys for it, and the unique customers who frequent the place.

Every summer we drive cross-country, and as thrilling as it is to see the geological vastness of our country, one rock formation transmuting into the next, badlands in South Dakota giving way to buttes into Montana, another thing that has impressed us is the awful sameness of it all.

Olive Garden in Missouri tastes just like Olive Garden in New Jersey. It’s harder to ferret out that Swedish burger–boy, was it good, Swiss cheese, some kind of sauce, and house-cured pickles–in Minnesota these days. Harder even to know that Minnesota has such a heritage.

But the Fourth of July is a happy time, and so is this week on my blog. Likewise, there is good news on the bookstore front. Another thing we’ve seen as we’ve made our way across the country is that the dreary reports may not be an accurate reflection of what is happening.

How else can you explain the second branches of beloved stores opening up, such as Left Bank Books in St. Louis? Or independents coming in to fill massive Borders spaces that were sitting empty? Or the crush of customers we’ve found at nearly every store and their rosters of exciting events?

You can’t go to such an event online. Not if you want to feel the author’s actual palm, nervous with sweat, because this is one of his first readings. OK, you may not want to feel that precisely, though the author I’m referencing here is definitely one worth seeing and reading. But what about seeing the warmth in a big star’s eyes as he greets each and every one of three hundred fans?

I’m not the only one who suspects there might be a reversal of our expectations where independent bookstores are concerned.

It was thriller writer Thomas Pluck who first alerted me to the fact that my local bookstore is expanding. That’s right, expanding. The place we’ve packed a hundred guests into for a Writing Matters panel is going to increase in size during this time of economic downsizing. You can read about it–and take a gander at Thomas Pluck’s intriguing books–here.

There is a convergence of factors right now that may work on the side of the independents. Locavore has become a term many know. There isn’t just slow food, but also slow money, slow schooling, slow travel. A whole slow living movement. Can slow reading be far behind?

Oh my goodness. Here’s slow books. I swear I wrote the above before discovering this. No, really. I did.

When independent bookstores are threatened, a whole way of life is, too. But perhaps we value that way of life more than the big corporations would have us think, even more than we realize. For the independents continue to rise up singing, raising a flag for what is really a mainstay of our country.

Main Street. The idea that someone could have a passion for something and make the selling of that something a pursuit for life. The community store we frequent, doing our shopping when we have shopping to do, wiling away hours for fun and diversion when we don’t. The human contact and connection that form the web, strong as spider thread, between the people we live amongst.

In “This Old Town” Nanci Griffith sings:

When my children’s children
Ask me why didn’t I go
They say the heart of any town
Is the people that you’ve known
They’ll always call you home.

I want to see a bookstore in every town.

They will always call me home.


  1. We lost our last Independent book store when Borders came to town. Now Borders is gone! I can’t imagine a town with a bookstore, but now I’ve got one. The good news is the friends of our library have opened a “lightly used” book store.

    Comment by C. Lee McKenzie — July 2, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

  2. I love John Waters’ fav: Atomic Books in my own quirky Baltimore, MD!

    Comment by Kathleen Barker — July 2, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

  3. Great post, Jenny! I love the independent bookstores – wish there was one in every town. We have one left here in Sheridan, Wyo. – Sheridan Stationery – and it’s wonderful! Our other book store closed a couple of years ago, hasn’t reopened. That’s sad. As readers and, especially as authors, we need to support the independents.

    Comment by P.L. Blair — July 2, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

  4. I missed our local Book Busters the instant it closed. I took some solace in going to Borders, partly because it had a good music section, but now that’s gone, too. Sure, I can spend a couple of hours wandering through B&N and sit down for a snack, but it lacks the coziness and neighborhood appeal of an independent bookstore. I’d love to see an independent resurgence, a little bookstore in every city where you can chat with the owners who are people like me who love books and not some clerk who’s there just for the job.

    Comment by Nancy Morse — July 2, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

  5. Yay Jenny! Its what every small town needs!

    Comment by Connie J Jasperson — July 2, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

  6. Love indie bookstores.


    Comment by Pamela DuMond — July 2, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

  7. Jenny, what a great post. I met you at one of the Writing Matters workshops there, in fact, when you announced the good news your about novel. Such a great bookshop, it has enriched the community.

    Comment by Thomas Pluck — July 2, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

  8. Jenny, what a nice post for this special week. Wish I could say there is a bookstore nearby, but we don’t even have a Starbucks! Have a wonderful 4th of July.

    Comment by "Doctor Barbara" - Barbara Ebel — July 2, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

  9. A lovely tribute to independent book stores.

    Comment by Sara — July 2, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

  10. Loved this article which filled my head with so many happy memories of book stores across America which I visited when on tour with Recording Artists. Not only could we browse for hours, sometimes just killing time between Interviews and Personal Appearances, but often performing there, doing acoustic gigs in a corner of the store, where people browsing could stop and listen, possibly purchase a CD and have a great cup of coffee and some carrot cake.

    There were converted cinemas (1950’s style usually),which had more than one floor available for the serious browser…lovely cosy fireplaces and armchairs where no-one minds if you sit and read a book before deciding to buy. Kids lying in the aisles doing their homework and research – again not bothered by anyone who wants them to go home or buy the book!

    What I found to be called ‘Mom and Pop’ bookstores, all dark and mysterious with little nooks and crannies filled with every book imaginable – a paradise for those like me who just like to browse – for the sheer joy of touching books, smelling books and drinking in their physical presence. Feeling the hard work that has gone into the creation of the written word is sheer joy.

    Without these wonderful places, including libraries, I think my life would be really dull and I am sure then lives of others would be too. Imagine never going to a book singing, meeting the author and chatting about their motivation. Imagine never having an author evening when the writer reads their work, answers questions and gets feed-back on their work…I cannot.

    So thanks for this lovely article, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which has given me such pleasure….reminding me of just what these bookstores mean to me. They offer so much more than a place to buy books.

    Comment by Jane Risdon — July 3, 2012 @ 5:24 am

  11. Great post, Jenny! I love the independent bookstores that carry my novels – they are each so unique. A big salute to bookcliffs in Wabasha, MN, Reading Frenzy in Zimmerman, MN, Excelsior Bay Books and the award-winning Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis. They are destination stores!

    Comment by Jan Dunlap — July 3, 2012 @ 8:23 am

  12. *Deep sniff* I can just smell the old paper and leather now! In my next life, I will own a secondhand bookshop with a bow window and a large black cat asleep in it.

    Comment by Alison DeLuca — July 3, 2012 @ 9:08 am

  13. I am seeing all the bookstores fall, one by one, out of my small town. The good (great!) news? Everyone is supporting our local indie. They’re the one store that’s going well through all the economic shake-down. And they deserve to. They run a beautiful, friendly, well-lit store with fireplaces and free coffee and any book you can imagine under the sun.

    Comment by SavvyBlue — July 3, 2012 @ 10:16 am

  14. Great post. :^) We used to have a small bookstore in our town, but it was replaced with a Dunkin Donuts, which is a nice place but not quite the same.

    It would be nicer if they added books to the menu.

    Comment by Penelope Marzec — July 3, 2012 @ 10:56 am

  15. This is a great post. It is so sad to see local bookstores going away, even the bigger bookstores such as Borders. I love my Kindle, which has gotten me in touch with alot of writers that I would never have met or read otherwise, but there is nothing like walking into a bookstore and browsing. In my town there are no small bookstores and the Borders is no longer there. *Sigh*

    Comment by Kellie — July 3, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  16. I think there will be room for indie bookstores and onlines to exist side by side in the larger populations centers. What makes me sad is that they are dying out in the smaller towns.

    Comment by Johanna — July 3, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

  17. This post makes me so happy. We have a great indie here in Charleston, Blue Bicycle Books – we LOVE going there. They do new and used, and have a great children’s space. Maybe there’s no Thomas table, but my Zoe loves going there just as much as she does B&N.

    Comment by Leah Rhyne — July 4, 2012 @ 6:42 am

  18. I have to say it discourages me to live in a large, populated area and have no independent bookstores nearby. The Borders that was local went out of business as did the closest B&N store. I am informed by the younger folks that they now only buy through Amazon. The large B&N in the mall seems to be selling more into coffee than books. People sit and read for free as they slurp coffee and soft drinks. I know I have painted a rather discouraging picture. But the truth is, I love bookstores and libraries and want to see them thrive. My novels always come out in print first and I love to read print publications.

    Happy 4th to all!

    Jacqueline Seewald

    Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — July 4, 2012 @ 8:41 am

  19. Thanks for all your comments, upbeat and gloomy, the siren’s song to bookstores I think we are all singing. The key to where the news is dismal is in alerting young people to the sheer pleasure of time spent in a bookstore (hence Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is growing…we now have a board! and will be structuring grants to get kids into bookstores who can’t afford to go!) When life becomes too easy, too convenient, and mostly too disconnected, there begins to be a hollowness inside, I find. Bookstores are the antithesis of this. They’re quirky–make our minds work and our brains fire to absorb the novelty and differences–and filled with live, real time interaction as much as dusky corners in which to creep away for some solitude. I am so glad you are all part of this conversation, and a very happy Independents Day to all :)

    Comment by jenny — July 4, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  20. Good post Jenny. Passions always find a way. I guess the prediction that print books are on the way out is a wee bit premature!

    Have a great Fourth.


    Comment by Rick Murcer — July 4, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  21. Anyone interested in bookstores should check out the documentary, Paperback Dreams. Just google the title and watch it on SnagFilms. It is a powerful witness to the collapse of independents around the country.

    Comment by Andrew — September 23, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

  22. Interesting tip from Andrew, and I will check out this film. Have to add though that having just returned from a two month tour of bookstores coast-to-coast, the independents are anything but collapsing. Rather rising. New stores are opening, flagship stores now have second branches, and the mood was optimistic in most places we visited. (The rare exceptions of struggling stores were daunting–and indication that the fight toward uniqueness in a Target-ed world, and the preservation of Main Street, is yet to be won). Make every day Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, check out the research on cognition and retention when reading on pages versus screens, and remember that balance is key. I admire Amazon’s one-click as much as the next girl. But so do I value a trip into one of four local bookstores within a half hour’s drive of my house. The smell, the sights, the conversation.

    Comment by jenny — September 24, 2012 @ 8:07 am

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