This story appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.
Story and photography by Gina Yu
Indie bookshop owners curate every book that enters their store, looking at who walks in and what is worthy of stacking a shelf. They maintain an art of service that has lost footing in a culture of convenience and efficiency. Customizing choices to every person and taking time to share stories, these are the hubs of community being revived by this generation.
The height of local bookstores ranged from the ’70s to the early ’80s. Then chain booksellers like Barnes & Noble entered the picture. With the advent of Amazon in the ’90s, the decline was steep. The intimate search for the perfect book was altered to fit a pursuit for whatever's cheapest or shiniest. Contributing to the closing of many stores, the online shopping tycoon curbed prospective booksellers from opening new shops. Yet with the shuttering of Borders in 2011 and the determination of book-loving local communities, bookshops are taking part in a movement to uphold the sanctity of the physical book.
Janet Geddis of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga. grew up a voracious reader and writer — “the kind of girl who would feel a mild panic if she didn’t have a book, paper and pen on hand at all times,” she says. For anyone with a favorite coffeehouse or eatery, they know the meaning of a third place. A place beyond the home or workplace, the third is an anchor of community life. Ray Oldenburg of “The Great Good Place” holds that these physical markers are essential for civil engagement. For Geddis, a great bookshop is a third place.
She remembers when chain-store shopping seemed like the newest and greatest thing. “American shoppers were courted heavily by big box stores’ looming sizes and discounting,” she says. “A large number of independently owned bookshops saw a dramatic decrease in customer traffic.”
But the times have changed, and disenchanted readers crave something a little more personal and a lot closer to home. Though some have likened the decline of bookshops to the fall of brick-and-mortar record or video stores, the product and experience is different. “Contrary to popular narrative, the outlook is not as bleak for bookstores,” says Joni Saxon-Giusti of The Book Lady Bookstore in Savannah, Ga.
From picture books to collector’s editions of the classics, indie bookshops do something that the swallowing, fluorescent-lit stores and one-click online ordering services don’t. They breathe and flex. At the hands of the owners, the bookshops reflect preference and intent, considering what their communities want and actually need.
“When people buy something, sometimes they like to have a connection to it; they like to feel it has some sort of story. It’s more fun to buy something in a real place from real people than to have it just show up on your doorstep,” says Jonathan Sanchez, owner of Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, S.C. “It’s sort of the difference between going to a nice restaurant and ordering through the drive-thru.”
Sanchez has a signed Tom Robbins and a first edition “The Great Gatsby” behind him. Meanwhile, he watches someone check out with two children's books, a $7 copy of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a hardback of “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” by David Sedaris and a new copy of “An Illustrated Guide to Cocktails.”
Despite personal taste, bookshop owners are first and foremost book-loving readers. Their purpose? To satiate their fellow book enthusiasts. And it’s working. Many bookstores are not only surviving but thriving thanks to creatively conscious owners and supportive community members. Since 2007, Blue Bicycle Books has grown every year with a 30 percent increase in revenues last year.
Jill Hendrix of Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C. sees that communities with strong shop-local programs like Austin, Texas’ “Keep Austin Weird” message seem to have some of the strongest independent bookstores. “Conceivably, shopping could go completely electronic,” she says. “I think this would be a mistake though, because stores are a place where like-minded individuals can find each other.”
Fiction Addiction recently held an author luncheon, and first-time attendees raved about the opportunity to be surrounded by other readers. “The advantage independent bookstores and other small businesses have is how fast we can innovate,” Hendrix says. “If something’s not working, we can adapt and try something else.”
Avid Bookshop does multiple events with local Athens organizations and nonprofits, hosting a variety of book clubs and author meet and greets. “Communities of all sizes with a strong local business network see the value in preserving what keeps their areas unique and vibrant, and will deliberately spend their money locally in order to maintain that human connection (and its corresponding economic benefits),” Geddis says.
The public is starting to realize that if they don’t choose to support local business, they simply will cease to exist. “Resurgent appreciation for local community businesses have given independents a much-needed, and deserved, boost,” Saxon-Giusti says. “I think that as long as independents give their customers excellent and knowledgeable personal service and continue to engage meaningfully with their communities, that they will indeed survive, and thrive.”
Amazon still looms in the background, however. By offering publishers highly competitive purchasing arrangements, it devalues books by pricing them below cost, and trains consumers to believe that a book is not worth its cover price. “I firmly believe there needs to be a big change in regards to the way publishers deal with Amazon if publishing is going to remain healthy and viable,” she says.
But independents do something else that Amazon can’t. They engage. Investing in community organizations, these bookshops volunteer time and resources into the very organisms that keep them alive. “Local businesses support other local businesses by giving their patronage to them as well. Sales tax is directly invested in your own community,” Saxon-Giusti says. It’s about mutually benefitting everyone.
Whether flipping through a physical book, downloading a digital edition or scrolling through an e-book (though that trend seems to be tapering off), newer generations face the danger of putting down the journeys that take time and introspection, trading them with the temptation of instant gratification.
Fostering imagination, manifesting gateways and honing possibilities, the necessity of the written word is motivation enough to keep books alive and valuable.
“While reading appears on the surface to be a solitary act, it can often be just the opposite,” Geddis says. “Books connect us to people we will never meet in ‘real’ life; they expose us to places and situations and even emotions we may not have ever experienced before.”
Favorite Books from Bookshop Owners
Janet Geddis, Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga. “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez, “Hyperbole and a Half ” by Allie Brosh, “Until We End” by Frankie Brown, “Dept. of Speculation” by Jenny Offill, “Seven Stories Up” by Laurel Snyder, anything by Ray Bradbury, the David Sedaris complete collection.
Jill Hendrix , Fiction Addiction, Greenville, S.C. “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert, “Dune” by Frank Herbert, “Someone Else’s Love Story” by Joshilyn Jackson, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Martian” by Andy Weir.
Jonathan Sanchez, Blue Bicycle Books, Charleston, S.C. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Seinlanguage” by Jerry Seinfeld, “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, “Tepper Isn’t Going Out” by Calvin Trillin.