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US Independent Bookstores Thriving and Growing

Finding New Books, Friends at Indie Bookstores
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Finding New Books, Friends at Indie Bookstores

Small, independent bookstores in neighborhoods across the United States are places to discover new books and make new friendships. But about 20 years ago they were rapidly closing because of competition from big box chain bookstores and on-line book sales. Then about 10 years ago something remarkable happened as indie bookstores came back to life, many thriving and growing every year.

FILE - This June 8, 2016 photo shows Riverby Books, a small independent bookstore located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington D.C.
FILE - This June 8, 2016 photo shows Riverby Books, a small independent bookstore located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington D.C.

At One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, customer Cheryl Moore likes the personalized service that she does not get at large corporate-owned bookstores.

"I think they pay attention to the kinds of books people like to read. They have book clubs, so I don't think it's a place where people just buy books, but make friends here.”

Kate Oberdorfer browses through the unusual assortment of books that range from mystery novels and cookbooks, to biographies of famous people.

"It's a great hole in the wall store where you can find independent titles,” she said.

Oberdorfer chats about a couple of books with Lelia Nebeker, the book buyer for the store that opened eight years ago in the upscale neighborhood.

"I do think it's a special place for people to come,” said Nebeker, who lives nearby. “When people come in and share their experiences about a book or an author, it can foster a sense of community where people can meet other people who share their interests,” she explained.

After almost withering away, indie bookstores grew by 35 percent between 2009 and 2015. And according to the American Booksellers Association, sales at the more than 2,400 bookstores in the United States rose about 5 percent over the past year. Among them is Hooray for Books, a children's bookstore that started 11 years ago in Alexandria, Virginia. Owner Ellen Klein thinks part of her success has been providing a wide variety of books to the diverse neighborhood.

"In this community we have a lot of mixed race families,” she said, “and so we're trying to serve them as well, and it's wonderful seeing more books with mixed race characters."

As customer Sarah Reidl scans the shelves of children’s books she said, "You just can't really browse on the Internet. I like to be able to browse and look for things in person that catch my eye."

For people who are passionate about reading, independent bookstores sometimes become a home away from home.

Kristen Maier from Missouri often comes to Hooray for Books when she is in the Washington area for work. She doesn’t think electronic books can replace the feeling of physically holding a book.

“If you don’t have a nice book to pass down to your grandkids or their grandkids, you just kind of lose that sense of history and tradition for your family.”

But to survive, today's indie bookstores know they have to sell more than books. One More Page also draws in customers with bottles of wine and chocolate they can take home along with a book.

"We are a place where you can come for events, you can meet authors, get books signed, and buy books you might not necessarily stumble upon on your own,” said Nebeker.

Including by local author Ed Aymar, who is talking before a packed house about his latest thriller The Unrepentant. A singer also performs songs that relate to the story.

“Usually, authors are just reading out loud,” he said. “Something like this gives a different perspective and provides more entertainment for the audience.”

Angie Kim, another local author, came to support Aymar.

“I’ve been here for 5 events just in the last couple of months,” she said. “I think it’s just a wonderful way to show the bookstore that we care about spaces like this and that we want them to continue.”

“We’re going to keep doing what we do well, and hope that our community loves having us around enough to support us,” Nebeker added.