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In March 2020, many booksellers feared that the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic would ring a death-knell for independent bookstores. With lockdowns preventing customers from visiting bookstores in person, there was nothing to stop consumers from purchasing books at lower prices from large online retailers like Amazon, which sells books at a loss to attract customers.

However, contrary to all expectations, the bookstore business is flourishing. Independent bookstores have seen renewed popularity since the pandemic: More than 300 new independent bookstores have opened in the United States since June 2020. There are also more than 200 new stores preparing to open in the next couple of years, according to the American Booksellers Association.

Bookstore owners explain that this surprising development may be because bookstores are more accessible and easier to open, due to reduced upfront costs. Store closings associated with the pandemic drove down rent prices, allowing some bookstores to open physical locations at lower costs than they would have faced before the pandemic. Other bookstores found their footing in lower-cost, alternative storefronts, like mobile, pop-up, or online locations.

These new, independent bookstores are achieving great success. Bookstore sales have grown 31.6 percent, to $633 million between 2020 and 2021, which is only $6 million lower than the total reported in 2019. Furthermore, bookstore sales appear likely to continue to grow beyond pre-pandemic levels. Bookstore sales were 19.4 percent higher between January and April 2022 than over the same period in 2021. Demand for print books is also growing. Even when consumers were not able to visit stores physically, print book sales increased by 10 percent over 2020 and then 9 percent in 2021.

But why are readers choosing to purchase books from brick-and-mortar stores rather than cheaper retailing giants like Amazon? The answer may lie in shifting customer priorities, as customers search for the community spaces that independent bookstores provide, rather than just looking to purchase books at a low price.

This wave of new independent bookstores also reflects a shift toward a greater community focus and more diverse ownership. The number of Black-owned bookstores, for example, has increased, from 54 in 2014 to 111 today. Many of these new independent bookstores also offer community services. Yu and Me Books in Manhattan distributed safety alarms and pepper spray canisters to mitigate anti-Asian hate crimes. The Black Worldschoolers Mobile Bookstore in Indianapolis makes an explicit commitment to share more stories written by Black authors. The success of independent bookstores thus might lie in the fact that they are no longer just places to sell books. They are also cultural, social, and community centers.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why are customers buying books from independent bookstores?
  2. Is the recent success of independent bookstores sustainable? Why/why not?
  3. Could independently owned businesses in other sectors see similar success? Why/why not?

Sources: Jim Milliot, “Bookstore Sales Rose 31% in April,” Publishers Weekly, June 16, 2022; Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “Some Surprising Good News: Bookstores Are Booming and Becoming More Diverse,” The New York Times, July 10, 2022; Hillel Italie, “Indie Booksellers Grew in Number, Diversity in 2021,” The Associated Press, June 15, 2022; Hillel Italie, “2021 in Books: ‘Everything Feels Magnified,’” The Associated Press, December 10, 2021; Elizabeth Gabriel, “New Mobile Bookstore Drives Interest in Black Stories,” WFYI, July 12, 2022; Andrew R. Chow and Annabel Gutterman, “Indie Bookstores are Fighting to Survive the Pandemic. A New Movement May Have the Answer,” Time, April 22, 2020; Judith Rosen, “Another Pandemic Surprise: A Mini Indie Bookstore Boom,” Publishers Weekly, October 15, 2021; Jim Milliot, “Print Books Had a Huge Sales Year in 2021,” Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2022.