Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Across the U.S. and Canada, rallies are celebrating independent booksellers.
The Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, is one of two bookstores in town. It shares a block with a jeweler and a record store. The streets are highly walkable; the shop gets a lot of foot traffic. Even so, like many brick-and-mortar shops, it works hard to entice customers to get off their computers and come visit in person.
April 30 is a big day for bookstores—especially the little ones, like the Country Bookshelf. In the U.S., it’s the second annual Independent Bookstore Day. Celebrations will happen across Canada, too, where festivities are organized under the umbrella of Authors for Indies.
As part of last year’s festivities, Carson Evans—the events and marketing coordinator at the Country Bookshelf—strung up some streamers and sketched chalk drawings on the sidewalk. The weather was beautiful, and folks strolled in to have a piece of cake. Her profits that day were more than 50 percent higher than the same day the prior year.
This time around, Evans is ratcheting up the schedule of events to cram in as much as possible—to try and distill the essence of the shop into a day full of programming. There will be a puppet show; a book club; live music; therapy animals. A volunteer reader will curl up on a seat in the window with a book, cup of tea, and a cat (adoptable through the local humane society). “It’s a showcase of all of the things that we do, but all in one day at a really fast pace, to give a picture of ‘this is who we are,’” Evans says.
More than 420 shops scattered across 48 states are participating this year, hosting readings and signings and selling limited-edition merchandise, like a vinyl record accompanying the bestselling kids’ book Rad American Women A-Z. In Canada, Authors for Indies has recruited more than 600 writers for events in over 100 stores in all 10 provinces.
Locally minded communities help sustain independent shops. But Evans says that in order to stay competitive, small stores need to tap into a global community, too. In online forums, stores share ideas about how to advertise for the bookstore day event, she says. And some weekend events aim to expand a store’s reach by literally putting it on the map. In Brooklyn, Ellen Wright, a publicist at Hachette, is spearheading a bookstore crawl. Participants will read their way through 20-odd shops, such as the decidedly macabre Morbid Anatomy Museum and the Brooklyn Art Library, which peddles handmade ephemera.
Even in a competitive market, Wright finds that booksellers want to foster a sense of camaraderie among themselves: “Everyone who works at the store is going to be a book person, and they like other book people,” she tells CityLab. “If independent bookstores in general are doing better, they all do better.”
And, despite high-profile shutterings such as St. Mark’s Bookshop—a stalwart in New York City’s East Village that finally went belly up in February after years of struggling—Wright says that bookstores seem to be experiencing a bit of an upswing offline. Amazon recently opened an analog shop; last month, Barnes & Noble closed fewer stores than it has since 2000, and revenue from its brick-and-mortar shops increased 1.3 percent in the last fiscal quarter. “The physical book business as an industry and within Barnes & Noble has stabilized,” the B&N CEO Ron Boire told Fortune.
“We wanted to change the tired narrative of bookstores hanging on by a thread and being these musty throwback shops,” the Independent Bookstore Day program director Samantha Schoech told The Daily Beast last year.
In a statement about his involvement with Authors for Indies, the writer Guy Gavriel Kay described how bookstores are integral facets of a community’s cultural life:
“Local indie bookstores are islands of light and knowledge in the communities lucky enough to still have them. So, if we support independent bookstores we aren’t doing so as a benevolent act, we are doing it for ourselves, our neighbourhoods, the richness of community life.”
Evans echoed that sentiment. Impromptu discoveries are part of the joy of shopping in person: the serendipity of sorting through stacks, plucking out anything that looks interesting, even if it’s not what you think you’re looking for. “You can walk in and find something you’ve never heard of that’s perfect for you,” she says. “That’s a wonderful thing.” The key is getting people in the door to poke around.