Independent streak: Against the odds, small bookstores are on the rise

  • Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro. STAFF PHOTO/GINA BEAVERS

  • Olive Tree Books-n-Voices in Springfield.

  • David Wilson, owner of Mystery on Main Street books in Brattleboro. At right, Michael Tenney (right) and Alan Armstrong of Brattleboro Books.

  • Michael Tenney (right) and Alan Armstrong of Brattleboro Books.

  • Kelly Maurer of Greenfield browses at Raven Used Books in Northampton. Staff photo/Sarah Crosby

For the Gazette
Published: 8/8/2018 4:09:49 PM

Raven Books in Northampton is the quintessential New England used bookstore. Winding stacks of books create a delightful maze that loops in and out of corners. There doesn’t seem to be a square inch of wall that remains unoccupied, and tables of books, live plants, and suspended artifacts makes for a satisfying and unique browsing experience.

Raven’s owner Betsy Frederick publishes a simple trifold brochure called “Bookstores of the Pioneer Valley.” It’s a wealth of information and a surprisingly full list. It includes “the largest, most popular independent bookstores, used & new in western Massachusetts and southern Vermont.”

“It was actually Kris’ idea,” Frederick says, looking at manager Kristopher Severy.

Severy sits at a small desk in a nook to the right of the cash wrap. He pokes his head out to explain how he came up with the idea.

“People would stop in and they were always complaining that their bookstores were closing down. I just wanted to say ‘Look, this area has over 20 bookstores.’ ”

“And it brings people to the area,” Frederick interjects. “We thought that if we could consolidate everything, it makes a bigger draw.”

Brattleboro, Northampton, and Greenfield each have four independent bookstores, and cities and towns throughout western Massachusetts, such as Springfield, also have at least one new or used bookstore nearby, including The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley and Amherst Books in Amherst.

The American Booksellers Association (ABA), a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the promotion of independent bookstores, reports that between 2009 and 2015, more than 570 independent bookstores opened in the U.S. That was a 40 percent increase after more than a decade of decline. It’s now estimated that there are over 2,300 independent bookstores operating in the country.

But it hasn’t been an easy road. Raven Books, Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, and other stores in business for 25 years or more have faced challenges from big box bookstores, Amazon, e-readers and other online retailers.

Yet the use of e-readers has declined in the last few years, and one of the last big bookstores, Barnes and Noble, is now restructuring after 11 straight years of falling sales. It’s a curious trend, but Severy sees the commitment of independent stores to books as one factor.

“[Barnes and Noble] stopped selling books, and they even tried to destroy the book when they released the Nook,” he said. “When that didn’t work out, they didn’t have the book market anymore. But all we have is books … we’ve just been pushing books the whole time.”

Barnes and Noble is now trying to redefine its place in the market. According to Forbes Magazine, the retailer, which has lost a larger than expected share of the book market to Amazon and Walmart, will open five new stores in fiscal year 2019. “They will be far smaller than existing locations and will feature fewer non-book entertainment offerings,” Forbes reports.

‘Like a jewel in the city’

Independent bookstores can be flexible; some sell cards, clothing and other items in addition to books. Olive Tree Books-n-Voices, an independent bookstore cum meetinghouse in the heart of Springfield’s Mason Square neighborhood, sells a variety of merchandise, or what is called “sidelines.”

Mason Square’s population is predominantly African American; it sits just northeast of Springfield’s metro center. It’s a hardscrabble neighborhood and struggles with its fair share of blight and generational poverty. But the community is tight, and many residents are dedicated to championing the people and the culture.

Olive Tree owner Zee Johnson is one of those champions. She has a hint of no-nonsense in her demeanor, but she’s also sweet and affable, and walking into her store is like entering someone’s home. There’s the soft smell of scented candles, and local radio programming serves as ambient noise. Yet there are over 500 titles in her store, with a plethora of front-facing Afrocentric books and peripherals.

Olive Tree Books-n-Voices and Red Brick Books are the only two independent bookstores in the city of Springfield. Olive Tree, however, is the only bookstore that caters to African Americans in the Pioneer Valley. This distinction is not lost on Johnson’s patrons.

“It’s like a jewel in the city,” Springfield resident Leo Foster says. “I come here to get books for my granddaughters, to get cards, or to talk to Zee. Or anybody who’s in here. It’s a place where folks come together and talk about life.”

Now in her 14th year in business, Johnson, like many other independent bookstore owners in the Valley, recognizes the need and importance for communal spaces, and she considers herself more than just a bookseller.

“It’s about selling history, self-identity, self-confidence, and empowerment in this neighborhood,” she says. “It’s about all those things you don’t get at Barnes and Noble.” 

Rise and fall of the big box bookstore

Independent bookstores had been struggling for some time when, in 1995, they were dealt another blow after Amazon opened its virtual doors, presenting itself as “Earth’s biggest bookstore.” The American Booksellers Association reports the number of independent booksellers fell 40 percent over the next five years as more people opted to do their book shopping online.

But something interesting happened in 2007: The digital e-book — in particular Amazon's Kindle — was launched, and although analysts predicted the demise of the printed word, e-books did not take off as expected, according to the Association of American Publishers. In addition, independent bookstores began regaining ground.

“When the e-book first came out, there was a big dip,” Frederick says of Raven’s sales. “It happened at the same time Amazon started selling used books, too. And then it leveled off and then it started to go back up again.”

Roxie Mack, an owner of Broadside Books, says even at the peak of the e-book business, many Broadside customers “felt that they wanted to hold a physical book.”

That’s not to say some businesses weren’t affected. Jessica Mullins, owner of World Eye Bookstore in Greenfield, saw her sales drop 18 percent between 2015 and 2016. She was forced to downsize to stay open, combining World Eye with Magical Child Toy Store. Although Mullins lost quite a bit of square footage, she’s managed to keep the doors open, and World Eye remains Greenfield's only independent new bookshop.

And there’s unanimous consensus as to why independent bookstores survive today. “They’re a reflection of the community because most independent bookstores really have a connection to the community,” says Johnson of Olive Tree Books. “It’s not about just selling books; it’s personal.”

Others, like David Wilson, owner of Mystery on Main Street books in Brattleboro, see the demise of former chain bookstores like Borders and Walden as a boost to independent stores. Wilson’s store, in fact, is in its 12th year, and Yankee Magazine calls it “One of the Best Independent Bookstores in New England.” 

Raven Books owner Frederick says independent store owners also stick up for each other rather than compete, sending customers to another store if they don’t have something: “It’s not one of those dog-eat-dog businesses like some industries.”

Indeed, Michael Tenney, owner of Brattleboro Books, notes that Brattleboro, with just 12,000 people, has four full-time bookstores “and all are relatively healthy.”

Industry analysts say the successful independent bookstores have built a model based on a three-pronged approach: hosting events like readings, a carefully curated selection of merchandise, and community appeal.

Back in Springfield, Leo Foster talks about his his promise to a fifth-grade class to buy each of them one book from Zee Johnson’s Olive Tree Books-n-Voices if they stopped by.

“I told the teacher, ‘If you can get 20 or 30 — whatever the number is, I’m still going to pay for the book.’ Hopefully that’s something that’s going to happen by the end of this month or maybe next month. Because that’s something I’m trying to instill in our community: Use what’s around your corner.”



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