Despite Online Retailers, Indie Bookstores See Resurgence

By Ethan Forman The Salem News, Beverly, Mass.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association says that after some years of struggle, new indie bookstores are opening. She says some are even reporting double-digit growth.


Local independent bookstores appear to be holding their own in an age when you can get nearly every book shipped to your door from an app on your smartphone, summon up a book on your e-reader, or browse the stacks of a large chain bookstore at the mall.

"The narrative 'bookstores are closing' ... is false," said Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, which has more than 200 members. After some years of struggle, new indie bookstores are opening. Some are reporting double-digit growth, she said.

This region is a strong one for bookstores, said Ineson, who lives in Swampscott.

However, while surveys show bookstores have "mind share" -- that is, people say they love them -- that goodwill doesn't always translate into market share, she said.

Still, the number of member bookstore locations of the American Booksellers Association has grown more than 40 percent, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,321 in 2017, according to the national nonprofit trade organization. ABA bookstore membership has increased for seven years in a row.

Independent bookstores have also seen sales increases, chalking up a compound annual growth rate of 5.4 percent over the past five years, the association says.

Bookstores were among the first businesses in the crosshairs of the Amazon phenomenon, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and a Beverly resident. There has been a shakeout among book retailers. "Those that have survived today are thriving," he said.

People still want to browse for books, Hurst said, and the online experience can be lacking when it comes to impulse buys.

That's why it's important for bookstores to have both a physical and an online presence, Hurst said. Amazon is also a member of the retailers association. It too has a brick-and-mortar store, Amazon Books, at MarketStreet in Lynnfield.

The owner of a bookstore in Beverly Farms that just celebrated its 50th anniversary last month said local bookstores have an advantage over online retailers.

A good way to discover new books and authors, says Pam Price, the co-owner of The Book Stop of Beverly Farms, is by actually coming into a shop and browsing around. "You might find that you thought you wanted this book, but it's the one next to it that calls out to you," she said.

The Book Shop The Book Shop at 40 West St. is where author John Updike used to browse for books or hold impromptu book signings before his death in 2009. The store maintains a shelf with his books and his photo on it. The shop sits in a clapboard house with a side garden at the corner of West and Oak streets. It was the location of a barbershop before it was converted into a bookstore in February 1968. The store has a loyal customer base and is active in the community, Price said.

The shop is co-owned by Price and Lee Simonds Brown, and Price said the shop is a team effort that employs six people, including booksellers Susie Dillon, Mary Healy, Kathy Cooper and Sue Kelly.

Nancy Hewson, Mary Perkins and Mimi Adams were The Book Shop's founders, and they are still valued customers, Price said.

About a dozen years after it opened, Laurence Brengle came on as manager, and he bought the bookstore and ran it for the next 15 years. The current owners took over in 1997.

The shop features hardcovers at the front of the store, a paperback room around the corner to the right, and a fully-stocked children's room upstairs. The stairs leading up to it are lined with kids books.

It's a store where students from Beverly High and other local schools can find books for their summer reading lists. The store also supplies school book fairs.

The bookstore has been sustained by a trend of people wanting to buy local, Price said. While they do get some business from tourists, Price said about 80-percent of sales are from locals.

Running a local bookstore is more than just knowing what books are best-sellers.

"It does involve knowing your customers and having a feel for your books and authors," Price said.

While some bookstores have closed in recent years, many are still going strong.

"There is this person who told me that the amazing thing about our area," Price said, "is ... Boston's the hub, but the spokes go out, and there is a bookstore at the end of every spoke. Now there might be a few less, now, but most of them are still ... are giving it their best shot."

The North Shore has its fair share of bookstores, in addition to the large Barnes & Noble at the Northshore Mall. Among them (and this is not an all-inclusive listing) are Hugobooks' The Book Rack in Newburyport, the Andover Bookstore in Andover, and the Spirit of '76 Bookstore & Cardshop in Marblehead.

Hugobooks recently opened Cabot Street Books & Cards in Beverly, next to the Atomic Cafe. There's Wicked Good Books in Salem, Manchester by the Book in Manchester-by-the-Sea and The Bookstore of Gloucester.

Not all independents have been able to weather the changes in book retailing. After 45 years in business, Toad Hall Bookstore in Rockport closed last year. The store succumbed to competition from online booksellers, a decline in tourism, and the seasonal nature of operating a bookstore in Rockport, according to a story in The Gloucester Daily Times.

Sue Little, the owner of Jabberwocky Bookshop (The Little Bookshop) at the Tannery Marketplace in Newburyport, said she is happy for Price to be able to celebrate The Book Shop's 50th anniversary.

Little started her bookstore in 1972, at age 22, with $2,000 to her name. Over the years, Jabberwocky has grown to one of the larger independent bookstore in the area. It's become a destination for readers from as far away as Maine and Boston.

"I think there has been a little bit of an uptick in independent bookstores in the past few years," Little said. Her take is bookstores are going to survive the shift in retailing. Young entrepreneurs are choosing to go into the book selling business as a lifestyle choice rather than to make a ton of money.

People also appear to want to read from books again, instead of from an e-reader.

"I found a lot of people are coming back to books," said Andrea Rich, owner of Annie's Book Stop, 132 Dodge St., Beverly. "They are coming back to the fact of holding a book in your hand," she said.

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