Despite Covid, despite Amazon, despite a general downturn in retailing over the last decade, independently-owned local bookstores seem to be making a comeback.
When Covid hit in 2020, it looked as though the health crisis would push independent bookstores over the cliff. That did happen in some cases, and the numbers of such businesses declined.
But independent bookstores have rarely been a high profit industry, and the owners have had to be creative and quick on their feet for the last two decades just to avoid being concerned about the Amazon behemoth.
According to a recent article by Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris in the New York Times, bookstore sales dropped nearly 30% in 2020, and the publishing industry braced itself for big changes in the way it operated.
Instead, something unexpected happened: small booksellers not only survived the pandemic but many are thriving.
The article quotes an executive of the American Booksellers Association, a trade organization for independent book dealers, as saying that the turnaround made by small bookstores was “kind of shocking.”
In addition to the stores that have opened recently, the ABA expects 200 new independent stores to open within the next year. According to the Times article:
But one unexpected outcome of the pandemic was the way many communities rallied around their local bookstores in a time of crisis. When in-person shopping plummeted during the shutdown, bookstores rapidly scaled up their online sales operations, and found other ways to keep their customers, including curbside pickup, home delivery, outdoor pop-up stores and bookmobiles. Readers, it turned out, were eager for print books during the pandemic, and the spike in sales continued into 2021, when publishers sold nearly 827 million print books, an increase of roughly 10 percent over 2020, according to NPD BookScan.
Some stores went beyond selling books. In the case of Southland Books in Maryville, Tennessee, (where I live) the owners began offering fully-cooked takeout dinners from their cafe. Our household loved the dinners, and from what I could tell, so did others. I was rarely there to pick up our food when there weren’t others doing the same thing. Southland has developed other community-oriented services that, I assume, are developing customers and helping turn a profit.
And, speaking of bookstore start-ups, I am happy to say that Maryville is about to get another independent, locally-owned bookstore.
Neighborly Books (right) will open in a downtown storefront later this summer, and a lot of folks are excited to see it happen. The owner is Laurie Meier, who is fulfilling a lifelong dream. After living in several locations, she and her husband have settled in Maryville and are determined to see that the community is well-supplied with books.
By sheer coincidence, Laurie is a graduate of the University of Alabama and took some of my classes when I taught there.
Maryville has been blessed to have Southland Books for the past three decades. Now we’re getting Neighborly Books. Life for the Maryville reader has been bookish and is getting better.
That appears to be the case elsewhere, too.
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