Category Archives: independent bookstores



During my year abroad in Germany, I was lucky enough to have a host mom who was also a librarian. My first week there, she signed me up for a library card and once I stopped getting lost on public transportation, I often visited a small library a half hour away (Bücherhalle Bergedorf). For an avid reader, Germany felt like paradise to me. Like in America, there was a bookstore in the mall, a small independent bookstore around the corner in a small square from my German tutor’s apartment, and books in train stations.

Unlike what I had experienced in America (living in several small towns without much public transportation), everyone seemed to be reading. My host sister and host brother (ages 16 and 12, respectively) brought two or three books with them to the beach. (I was charmed by the German “vacation books”—slender, inexpensive volumes of fiction that would be typed as “beach reads” or “light reading” here—but for €5 or even sometimes less.) It seemed like everyone carried at least one book around with them to read on the bus, the train, while waiting in line. Bookstores abounded.

I think part of the German insistence and delight in reading comes from their idea of a “Kulturnation”—a country bound together by tradition, literature, language, and religion. The act of reading and writing has always furthered (and often challenged) these aspects of any country. Back in the U.S., as I read headlines about the demise of independent bookstores, Borders closing, and many questions about the future of print books, I wondered how the Germans did it. Now granted, Germany is considerably smaller than the United States, and one might argue that we do have a substantial book culture here. But is it more due to geographical size and population than an actual ingrained cultural tradition? How could we here in America make turning to a book as natural as turning to our phones or another electronic device?

What do you think of the U.S.’s book culture? How can we make it better? Or do you think we’re doing just fine, after all?

**If you’re further interested in this topic, I found this article, originally published by The Nation in 2012 to be very interesting and helpful.


Blast from the Past

Passing through Harrisburg last Sunday night on an impromptu Pennsylvania getaway, I found myself with a half-hour to spare and figured I’d check out what was said to be a terrific used-book store, Midtown Scholar Books. But nothing I’d read or heard about it quite prepared me for this:

….and what you see here are just two of the store’s six levels. Needless to say, I spent a lot more time there than a half-hour, and a lot more money than I had intended. As it was Sunday night, things were slow. But you could tell this was a terrific social and cultural hub in the neighborhood, with an art exhibition space, a café, a big stage for readings, a large children’s section, and that wonderful open gallery, filled with more books as well as secret reading nooks, ringing the second floor.

I was knocked out by the place the way I was by Powell’s the first time I saw it. I also felt rocketed back to the recent past—the pre-Amazon, pre-Kindle era–when New York City boasted fabulous destination bookstores, most of them on Fifth Avenue. Emporiums for new–not used–books, and often for records as well (we had records in those days, not CD’s), these were places with stunning architecture, knowledegable staff, and  huge selections. Rizzoli, Scribner’s, Doubleday, Brentano’s—you could spend an afternoon caroming among them down Fifth Avenue.

Great large-scale bookstores still exist, and it remains a pleasure to spend time in places like Strand, Barnes and Noble on Union Square, and the aforementioned Powell’s in Portland, Oregon.  And Rizzoli has found a new home, further downtown on Broadway and 26th St.  But I wish I could pass on to another generation the sheer thrill of walking into one of those Fifth Avenue architectural beauties, where you felt surrounded by possibility and enriched by the sheer elegance and grace of these vast literary temples. In a more casual way, Midtown Scholar brought back that sensation to me. I’m glad it’s around, and it gives me a good reason to look forward to my next trip to Harrisburg.


Books and pieces

Just got back from a relaxing beach vacation in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  Aside from blue skies, a minimal amount of jellyfish, and the blackened fish tacos at Uncle Ike’s, one of the highlights of our week was spending time at the Island Bookstore in Corolla.  Below is a view from the front porch of this quaint, but well stocked and organized, establishment which seems to do a brisk business (warms the heart, that):

Like most publishing people (really, like most book people) I’m thrilled at how nicely the independent stores are doing after being pummeled by giant corporations starting in the ‘90s and facing the threat of death by e-books that doomsayers predicted (and still do).  What I didn’t expect, and find rather ironic, is the fact that we now are all worrying about  and rooting for Barnes & Noble’s survival in the wake of its recent struggles.  B&N, once publishing’s bad guy, has relinquished its evil empire status to the mighty (Villanous? Depends on who you talk to…) Amazon, with the result that people who once reviled the company are now offering suggestions on how to stay afloat for the sake of the book business as a whole.  This piece by Jason Diamond in Flavorwire goes to the heart of the issue and suggests that B&N act more like an Indie in order to save itself.  Did I mention irony?

As much as I love a musty, cluttered shop that I can lose myself in for hours at a time, growing up in the Miami sprawl, I went to the Waldenbooks or Borders at the mall because quaint, pretty Indie bookstores were not just a stroll away.  Sure, these mall venues lacked charm, but they offered access to the titles I wanted and needed and I was grateful they were around.  I do hope B&N, which effectively replaced those old mall stores, will hang on for a new generation of readers who get dropped off at the mall by their parents.

So, what’s your favorite bookstore?  And why?


Not only do the French not get fat, understand the subtle arts of seduction, scarf-tying, gastronomy and most recently (per Bringing up Bebe) parenting,  it seems that even the Gallic booksellers are in a better spot than their American colleagues  Although I am skeptical of the many hyperbolic  claims associated with French culture—Americans have a peculiar love hate relationship with the French (remember “freedom fries?”) that often renders the land of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité in a less than accurate light, it does seem that French booksellers, thanks to  legal price-fixing (no collusion charges here!)  and government subsidies, do enjoy a considerable advantage over our anemic and Amazon-eviscerated ecosystem. Depending on your politics, the French respect for/protection of booksellers epitomizes everything that’s right or wrong with government, but it does mean that the market for books has remained both stable and lively.  From my French clients—who send me photos of reading tours and well attended signings filled with well-dressed people— I get a glimpse of what seems a pre-lapsarian booksellers’ paradise.  Do I romanticize? Mais bien sur.

I’m not sure that given the present climate in the United States that there is really much likelihood that our model will borrow something from the French, but it is, however, interesting to look abroad at a very different literary landscape and indulge in some armchair travel.


Summer Reading List

With this brutal heat wave we’ve had recently, I think it’s safe to say that summer has (un)officially begun! Here at the office, we’re fortunate to have summer Fridays, when the office closes at 1 pm from Memorial Day until Labor Day. For some, it’s a most welcome opportunity for a long weekend away, and for others, a great chance to catch up on some recreational reading.

Over the long weekend, I came across this pretty terrific list of 15 Summer Reads Handpicked by Indie Booksellers, and suffice it to say that more than a few of these titles have since infiltrated my own summer reading list.

What types of books do you prefer to read during the summer? Captivating thrillers that will chill you to your core? Adventure novels set in the Arctic where you can easily imagine yourself when it gets too hot to bear?


Did your city make the cut?

The Huffington Post came out with a great article today about Amazon’s second annual list of the most well-read cities in the US. This list is, of course, based on Amazon’s sales, and as the Huffington Post points out, doesn’t properly represent places where a lot of people are still visiting traditional bookstores. Indeed, our own city doesn’t make the top ten, but I’d like to think that’s because you’re never far from an independent bookstore or a Barnes & Noble.

To that end, the lovely folks at Huffington also provide people in the #1 town of Alexandria, VA with a list of alternatives to Amazon. Still, it’s always interesting to see who’s buying what online.

Which leads me to my questions for the day: What are the top genres you tend to buy online? And which ones do you tend to buy in person?

I’m going to investigate my own book buying habits tonight, and I encourage you to do the same!


Bricks and mortar (and Lego Men)

I’ve gone on the record here a number of times about my pro-bookstore bias, so I won’t go into it again, but let me start by saying this isn’t a physical vs. digital post.  For now at least, we can all agree that physical bookstores exist, and there are people who still wish to patronize them.  I am one of those people, but I respect that there are people who have other preferences.

I wandered around the B&N behemoth at the top of Union Square the other day and thought about the ways that stores innovate in what are not the easiest times.  As I passed the sizable Lego section of the store on the escalator (and glanced down at the enormous book-reading Lego Men that I’d strongly consider purchasing if they were for sale), I realized that it’s well past the time that I cringed in response to non-book space in the store.  Don’t get me wrong: when that particular store expanded their Nook…nook, I was very happy they found space from the DVD/music area and not the bookshelves.  But even when I forced myself, I found I was happy that people who might not go out of their way to buy books have to pass tons of books on their way over to build at the Lego table.  What use are shelves and shelves and shelves of books that will be returned if no one goes into the store to buy them, after all?  However complex the economics, eyes on books seems better than not.

Over the years, we’ve seen stores adding cafés and media and toys and games.  We’ve seen stores try to find a home for themselves in a world of e-books with things like the Nook and the customized e-book shelf talkers that Melville House offers indies, as recently reported by Laura Miller in Salon.  When I worked at B&N, the store I was in had recently begun an events program (which was nothing new in general, but it’d previously been deemed too small to find the space for them), with signings, readings, story time and writing groups.  Whatever the results may be in this time of great change for the industry, I’m pleased any time I see that a piece of the intricate publishing ecosystem won’t go down without a fight (so long as it’s not at the expense of authors, of course—the rest of us are nothing without them).

For those of you who sometimes shop in physical bookstores, what do you see stores doing in a bid for survival?  Any great ideas that you think should be adopted more widely?  Any ideas you wish they’d try?

How would you save the book biz?

We’ve all heard the horror stories over the last couple of years about the end of publishing and books basically becoming obsolete and going the way of the VHS tape.

Those of us who work in publishing do our part to help keep the business afloat. Writers by writing, where it all begins; agents by selling writers’ works; publishers by publishing and getting the books to the consumer. We work hard, despite the changing landscape and gloom and doom mantras, to get our books into the marketplace, especially those hard-to-sell titles that fall into the “labor of love” category, of which I can list my fair share from over the years.

Now bestselling author Ann Patchett has made the front page of the New York Times (rare for a publishing story at all, and a positive one at that) talking about opening an independent bookstore in her hometown of Nashville. I loved Ann Patchett before (State of Wonder was definitely one of the best books I read this year) and now I love her even more for using her own time and resources to help give back to her community, and by extension, to the publishing industry.

I can’t think of a quick-fix to transform the biz, but new successful indie stores will help, and as Patchett notes in the piece: “If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.” Meantime, I will be continuing to try and sell books that make a difference in people’s lives, and I will be more mindful of supporting my local bookseller as we approach the holiday season.

If you could do one thing to help save the book business, what would it be?

The price of admission

There was a little used book store around the corner from my apartment complex, when I was growing up in Miami, that was my second home.  Nerdy, latch-key kid that I was, I spent hours browsing the shelves, trying to get the owner to throw in an extra dog-eared paperback in exchange for the stack of Spanish language comic books I was trading, and generally getting high on the smell of old paper and ink.  I still have treasured editions scattered throughout my many bookcases whose provenance was that little shop.

Then, when I first got to New York, I was blown away by places like Shakespeare & Co., Brentano’s, Coliseum Books, Papyrus and that promised land for bibliophiles, The Strand.   A few years later many of my favorite haunts had gone out of business or been taken over by soulless corporate giants (you know who you are) but I never lost my love of browsing aimlessly in book stores.  These days, I still occasionally wander over to the Barnes & Noble on Union Square and spend my lunch hour in the fiction stacks on the fourth floor.

Of course, book stores have also traditionally been a place for authors to do their dog and pony show in support of their work.   Book tours are going the way of the Amazon forests but certain authors are still a huge draw (just try to get anywhere near the third floor at the aforementioned Barnes & Noble when David Sedaris is doing a reading).  Some of these events can make you fall in love with a book or its author, sometimes both.   They’re also the makings of a cheap date for grown-ups and an alternative to a $30 movie outing for young kids.  Except, it seems, no more.

Check out this  Gawker piece about the new trend of book stores charging admission to author events.  I actually understand and support independents in their efforts to get people in the door.  These are trying times for book sellers and if they are to keep their doors open in the face of the online juggernauts (you know who you are, cough, Amazon) they are going to have to figure out a way to make money.  But it does make me sad.   How many times did I walk out of a book store with a title I had no intention of buying when I went in after stumbling upon an author reading from his/her book?  I wonder if the days of the accidental book buyer are numbered as a result of these new pay-for-play tactics.

What do you all think about this new development?


Attention, Shoppers: Book Nut in Aisle Six

Thanks to a perfect storm of heavy Seder food, an overtired, sick toddler, and a neighbor’s alarm clock that just. wouldn’t. shut. up, I’m way too beat to construct much of a post today. So I’ll just share the link to a blog post from the Three Guys One Book site that’s been getting a lot of coverage the last two days. Basically, it’s all the reasons why we need to support independent bookstores—the positive effects they have on the community, their ability to showcase books that might otherwise get lost on Amazon, and most significantly (and humorously) how they prevent book nuts from following you around the supermarket holding forth on their new favorite titles. With all the other crazies in New York—like last night’s neighbors, for example–to me, that’s the best argument of all!