A Day to Celebrate the Staying Power of Independent Bookstores


Customers lined up inside a bookstore on last year's California Bookstore Day, the inspiration for the national edition of the event, happening this Saturday. Photo: The Litography Project

Customers lined up inside a bookstore on last year’s California Bookstore Day, the inspiration for the national edition of the event, happening this Saturday. Photo: The Litography Project

Not so long ago, it seemed as if we could all predict an unhappy ending for the independent bookstore in America. Barnes & Noble and Borders looked big enough to swallow every small bookseller whole, and the arrival of Amazon appeared to be the last chapter. But then Borders went bankrupt, B&N became less of a behemoth, and Amazon suffered a significant sales dip in its media category last year. Many link their lowered sales to their bitter dispute with Hachette—proof that convenience isn’t the only factor that people consider when buying a book. We care about its provenance, too, and that concern has helped to change the outlook for local booksellers. The number of indie bookstores in the U.S. has actually grown by 20% over the past five years, and this Saturday is a chance to celebrate their staying power during the first annual Independent Bookstore Day.

The tradition began last year with California Independent Bookstore Day, which 93 stores took part in. Inspired by Record Store Day—a shopping event that takes place in record stores nationwide, featuring in-store concerts and limited edition albums—Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and his wife, writer Samantha Schoech, helped organize a similar day for local booksellers. Publishers were asked to produce limited edition books and goods that the bookstores would sell on that day only, and the shops invited authors for special readings and after parties.

The event was hit. Collectively California bookstores earned $150,000, an average of roughly $1,600 a piece, on top of their normal sales. Said Susanne König, director of POWERHOUSE Arena, “For smaller stores that can be double or more what they usually take in. Even for a large bookstore that’s not small change.”

All indie NYC bookstores are participating in the first national event on Saturday, but POWERHOUSE is one of five bookstores in Brooklyn—along with WORD, Community Bookstore, Terrace Books, and Greenlight—that will be selling 16 different limited edition books and artwork including a print by Chris Ware, a chapbook by Roxanne Gay, a hand-drawn map of Huck’s journey down the Mississippi, and a set of four books about booklovers, including 84, Charing Cross Road, and The Borrower, packaged together in a tin. None can be ordered online or reserved, so to ensure you get one, you need to line up before the stores open.

“The idea is not only to drive sales, but to also create a fun annual event in the spirit of Record Store Day,” said Stephanie Valdez of Community Bookstore. “It’s a party, an awareness campaign and a sales promotion.”

Every store is holding its own special events and inviting authors—Community Bookstore will have free Sixpoint beer in the afternoon, and authors Paul Auster, William Corbett, and Felix Harr for an evening reading. Greenlight has novelists like Lev Grossman taking turns in a photo booth, and will be handing out raffle tickets for prizes like a pair of tickets to see David Sedaris.

Dave Eggers giving relationship advice at last year's California Independent Bookstore Day. Photo: The Litography Project

Dave Eggers giving relationship advice at last year’s California Independent Bookstore Day. Photo: The Litography Project

Across the river there are special giveaways planned too. McNally Jackson in Soho–which has signed a lease on a new store in Williamsburg but has no definite opening planned as of yet–will be randomly giving away 30 books recommended by authors like Junot Díaz, who picked Risa Wataya’s I Want to Kick You In the Back.

To cap off the day, most participating stores will be hosting afterparties. POWERHOUSE in Dumbo is the home of the official afterparty for the city’s bookstore community, and will have hosts Emma Straub, Jami Attenberg and Angela Flournoy on hand along with music, snacks from Luke’s Lobster and Brooklyn Brewery beer, from 9 to 11:30pm. 

“It’s a great moment for independent bookstores,” said Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight. “They are gathering places, cultural connectors, curators of content, and much more.”

Not having to compete on the same scale as chain stores and Amazon has allowed the indies to curate their stores and events without focusing exclusively on the bottom line, a tactic that has ultimately paid off. Book sales at independents has outpaced the national average for the past few years. And while independents are responsible for a relatively small slice of the pie—just 10% of book sales total—their influence is priceless.

As the program director of Independent Bookstore Day Samantha Schoech wrote before California’s inaugural event last year, “Indies make books….it’s the small independent stores that turn the little guys into David Sedaris or Barbara Kingsolver or Dave Eggers by the sheer strength of their enthusiasm.”

For more information on New York City’s Independent Bookstore Day events, visit bookstoredaynyc.com.

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