By Natasha Soto
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
If forecasts had been correct, the independent bookstore would have been dead by now. First, they were supposed to be out-competed by large commercial retailers like Barnes and Noble, then made obsolete by e-books and finally dealt a deathblow by Amazon and other e-commerce sites.
Instead, since 2009, the number of independent bookstores has grown by more than 30 percent, according to the American Bookseller’s Association. In New York City, Brooklyn may be the borough that has felt this independent bookstore mini-boom most profoundly. A New York Times article titled “Literary City, Bookstore Desert” chronicled the shuttering of Manhattan bookstores due to rising rents. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Greenlight Bookstore has opened a second location, Word Bookstore is set to open up a children’s bookstore, McNally Jackson has opened an offshoot in Williamsburg and Books Are Magic has set up shop in Cobble Hill.
Even if it is impossible for independent bookstores to compete with the marked-down prices of Amazon, these brick and mortar stores offer a sense of connectivity that online retailers cannot. While reading seems like a solitary experience on the surface, it actually involves completely opening yourself up to another person’s mind. If reading is ultimately about seeking connection, a bookstore’s job is to extend that impulse. Successful independent bookstores understand that their business is not just to sell books.
“If you’re doing it right, every single bookstore should be unique to its neighborhood,” says Hannah Oliver Depp, manager of Word Bookstore in Greenpoint. Depp believes a bookstore must exist in relation to its community.
One of the ways Word foments a connection to the community is through extensive events and programming. Word hires educated staff that is knowledgeable about specific subject areas. For example, Lauren Paris, a poet and employee at Word, has worked on expanding the store’s poetry section and facilitates a free poetry workshop for the public. In this way, Word provides a curated and personal touch, as well as a meeting ground for community members’ distinct talents and passions. Christine Flagette, owner of The Bookmark Shoppe in Bay Ridge, has a very personal approach to connecting visitors to books. She says that she loves handpicking books for people who stop by: “Once we are familiar with our costumers, our recommendations can go a long way.
One of the biggest functions of the modern bookstores seems to be a gathering space for community. “We knew we couldn’t have a bookstore that wasn’t in some way a community space,” noted Michael Fusco-Straub, co-owner of the recently opened Books Are Magic. Books Are Magic is open every day, and hosts an event every evening. “It’s been bonkers!” he exclaimed excitedly, “hundreds of people show up to the events, and authors are even specifically asking to come to our store.”
According to Fusco-Straub, an unexpected but welcome challenge has been keeping inventory stocked, as people were so excited about the store’s opening in May that books moved quickly.
Another store, Powerhouse Arena, gained notoriety through its sleek, industrial and large space as well as the big names it attracted, such as Al Gore and Salman Rushdie. Even after moving to a smaller space in DUMBO, events at this store can still attract crowds of around 150 people.
Community members have also flocked to independent bookstores to share their fears. “The day after the election, this was the first place people thought to go. They came in and said, ‘I know I’m safe here,’” explained Hannah of Word Bookstore. Susanne Konig, founder of Powerhouse Arena, says she saw a similar occurrence at her bookstore after the election, and again after the Charlottesville protest. “The independent bookstore was revived as a place of refuge or a safe haven … You could literally see [people’s] shoulders relax. They came in to look for answers, to talk, to feel safe.”
According to Konig, costumers were seeking out books about the political climate, white rage, racism and diversity so much that the bookstore curated an entire section called “Books to Resist.” Fusco-Straub said the election re-invigorated his and Emma Straub’s dream to open a bookstore. “When it happened, we were in shock. We thought, for maybe a day, that this might not be the right time to open a bookstore. But then we realized how important it was that we were going to at this time.”
Not only do independent bookstores go out of their way to foster community, consumers also go out of their way to support their local independent bookstores.
“Many people now understand that shopping local is a political act,” says Stephanie Valdez, co-owner of Community Bookstore. “By shopping local, you keep dollars in your neighborhood.”
Here’s a Bookstore, the delightfully cluttered antiquarian’s dream on Coney Island Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, has been open since 1976. Mother and son Sylvia and Doron Levy opened the store when rent was $400 a month, and it has increased by 10 times since then. Still, they have out-competed five other bookstores and been named to the “Best Bookstore in New York” by the Daily News. The secret to their success? “We are a family-owned business, and people come for the friendly service.”
People think of bookstores differently than they do other commercial spaces. In 2008, the Fort Greene Association commissioned a survey to find out what kind of retail options they thought were missing from Fort Greene. The No. 1 answer across income and ethnicity was “a bookstore.” According to Konig, when she is traveling and tells people she owns a bookstore, no matter who she is speaking to, they usually respond with awe, positivity, maybe even a gentle sigh. “It’s a bit romantic,” she says, “but people love to be surrounded by books.”