Independent bookstores help cities build up community

·12 min read

Aug. 6—July 10 marked the start of LGTBQ+ Pride Week in the Northern Indiana town of Goshen, and Fables Books was ready to help kick off the event.

The shop invited three writers to read their work, sign books and talk writing and LGTBQ issues with readers. There was fiction and non-fiction writer Dawn Burns, poet Mary Catherine Harper, and J.R. Jamison, of Muncie, author of the memoir "Hillbilly Queer," a story about growing closer to his politically opposite father on a road trip during the 2016 election.

The gathering was not unlike any other you might see at a locally-owned bookstore across the state of Indiana — a group of people discussing their recent book club read, a story time for children and Bible study.

Locally-owned bookstores, as it turns out, are community hubs. Not only is a bookstore a place for new ideas, education, exploration and adventure, but they grow strong roots in the towns and cities they call home.

Community love

Bookstore origin stories vary across the state but usually come down to two common threads: a love of books and community.

"Independent bookstores are important because they are typically run by people in the community," said Brian Alford, who co-owns Between the Pages, 2350 N. Lebanon St., in Lebanon with his wife Cathy. "We participate in a lot of community events that a big box store just isn't going to do because they are just a big corporation that is there to open their door. We are invested in the community and we really want to see it thrive and bring our own spin to it. Not just open a store every day and sell books."

In Goshen, local bookstore Better World Books was going out of business. Kristin Saner, a former employee, along with several friends who also had retail experience at the store, reached out to the community to see if Goshen would welcome a new bookstore in its place.

The answer was a resounding yes.

So Saner and her colleagues (her husband Mark, Veronica and Gary Berkey and Brad Weirich) bought the business and renamed it Fables Books, located at 215 S. Main St.

"Independent bookstores are a place of community because they provide community gathering space," Saner said. "People come in not only to shop but to find places to gather with friends and family."

Being in the heart of downtown Goshen allows the bookstore to participate in First Friday. They stay open late and engage with the monthly theme.

It doesn't have to be First Friday to find something happening at Fables Books, however.

There are author talks, books and cocktails, there's even a silent book club, the perfect set up for introverts, Saner said. Just bring a book and read with others.

Mickey's, 624 Vincennes St., a bookstore and coffee shop in New Albany, recently celebrated their one year anniversary. It's a small shop that has quickly branched out as an active member of the community.

Sunday, July 31, they held their first community exchange event, inviting local produce sellers, nonprofits, local businesses and more to open booths in in a vacant lot by the bookstore. It was an idea that grew out of their one year anniversary event. They chose to highlight other organizations and businesses in New Albany as part of the celebration.

"So many people were seen who never got the opportunity, and a lot of people are going now to these businesses and supporting the nonprofits," said book shop owner Mickey Ball.

The shop partners with the literary journal samfiftyfour to hold open mic nights that often fill the shop to capacity. Ball said the shop is located near a school and in the afternoons students come to study, read or just hang out with friends.

Locally-owned bookstores are "a little spot of enjoyment where (people) can find adventure or gifts or something to just encourage the community in a positive way," said Angela Britt, owner of Angela's Bookstore, 103 W. Washington St., in Monticello.

"In communities, bookstores are a safe haven for so many and also for adults to find books and stories that they can see themselves in," Jamison said. "But also to find books and stories where they can escape and also to have events where the community can come together and talk about books. They know their community and the needs of the community. I find independent bookstores to be a vital part of the overall fabric of the community."

New or used?

Walk into Chapter 2 Books, 107 E. Sycamore St. in Kokomo and there will be plenty of reading options to make a book lover smile. But if they knew there was a backroom filled with thousands of books that aren't ready to sell, that might be pure torture.

"It takes a long time to process (used books)," said store owner Jennifer Marden.

Many of the state's independent bookstores chose to start with used books.

"Particularly, cost-wise there is a little bit of advantage starting out with used books," Marden said. "There are a lot of stores that do both. And we do a little bit of new with our local authors."

Working with used books has several advantages, she said. A lot of the time people are just willing to donate them. This creates instant profit for the bookstore if those books sell. Then there is the ability to work with store credit.

At Chapter 2 Books, the store gives customers who bring in used books store credit. The customer can then use that credit to purchase books. If they so choose, they could later trade in those books for more store credit. It's a continual loop that benefits both business and customer.

Used books also create a level playing field. With prices for a new book ranging from around $10 for a paperback to sometimes over $30 for a hardback, a used book store gives lower and middle class families opportunities to enjoy owning books.

Angela Britt sells both new and used books, with used books starting in price at $1. There is always something in her shop for every budget, she said.

Between the Pages also began with a focus on used books, however, they later decided to incorporate new books as well so they could have a good representation of both past and present releases in their inventory selection.

"We were kind of hesitant that the price would shock people because we went from used books that were in the three to six or seven dollars range to having hardback books that are $28 dollars," said Alford. "We were worried that would shock some people. But they didn't hesitate. They have actually been very receptive to it. It's been a good addition to the bookstore."

At Fables Books, the five co-owners want to give readers of all ages the opportunity to do what they love to do: read.

"Not only are we providing windows into the world for all people but we are also providing affordable books for all people," Saner said. "Books provide such wonderful connection to the world around us but they can be expensive. Used books are accessible to everyone to have that connection."

#indie500books

Many people want to talk to Kokomo's Lisa Fipps about her middle grade book "Starfish," a novel-in-verse about bullying.

Fipps, on the other hand, has wanted to talk about independent bookstores this summer.

Fipps is a member of The Renegades of Middle Grade, a group of middle grade writers founded by James Ponti, author of the "City Spies" series. They decided to spend some time over the summer promoting 500 independent bookstores across the nation via a social media campaign called #indie500books.

They post pictures of the shops and provide details about what make the bookstores unique on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

A teacher in Ohio, Fipps said, has been trying to visit the promoted bookstores near her, including those in Indiana and Michigan.

"What it's doing is making people aware of indie bookstores and their special features," said Fipps, adding she was getting ready to post about a California bookstore called The Book Bar, a shop where book lovers can grab a book and a glass of wine.

There is a campaign among Indiana bookstores called the "Hoosier Indie Bookstore Tour." Customers can purchase a small wooden Indiana token that has the names of participating bookstores on it. The goal is to then visit each bookstore. When visited, a shop will cross their name out on the Indiana token, creating a multicolored keepsake when the campaign ends.

Customers are encouraged to take pictures at the Indiana bookstores they visit and post on social media with the hashtag #hoosierbookstoretour.

"Booksellers are great at selling ideas," said Marden, whose shop is a participant in the tour. "Everyone is in it together. We're all competing against the Evil A (Amazon). That's what we call them in the bookseller world. And we are all kind of banded together to defeat the bad guy who is out there selling books for so cheap we can't even get them for as cheap as they sell them."

Where everybody knows your name

Fipps recalled working as a journalist at a small newspaper whose office was inside a mall. Across the way was a flower shop, and the owner would greet everyone in a way that showed she knew them as friends and neighbors instead of customers.

"It's all about relationships: creating, building, sustaining relationships," Fipps said. "A chain store cannot do that. They cannot get to know you as a person like an independent bookstore can."

Relationship building is a big goal for Marden.

"Honestly, I feel like they are friends, our regular customers," she said. "They know me. Some of them have been to my house and gone to a graduation party for my step-daughter. There's a personal touch you aren't going to get (at a chain store)."

Jamison said he often felt overwhelmed when walking into a big box store with their large selection of books and overstuffed floor space. He prefers the quaintness an independent bookstore provides.

"That doesn't mean that they don't have as many titles, but it's a more intimate experience," he said. "Typically the bookseller knows their customers because they are all local and they have their finger on the pulse of the community, and it feels like more of a community atmosphere than going into a big box store."

Sarah Layden, a creative writing professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of upcoming 2023 short story collection, "Imagine Your Life Like This", said the community atmosphere in independent bookstores is a draw for her as a customer.

"I think the thing I love the most is the connection that you can make, not only with the booksellers but other customers and readers, with people who are part of the bookstore community — whether they are coming in for readings or they are just there browsing," she said. "There are a lot of organic conversations that happen in that space. And a lot of times, it's booksellers recommending things and telling you about authors you have never heard of before or books you haven't discovered yet."

Poet Mitchell L.H. Douglas, also an IUPUI professor whose 2018 poetry collection "dying in the scarecrows arms: Poems" was reviewed by U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith in Oprah Winfrey's "O Magazine," said that walking into an independent bookstore was like a homecoming.

"I'm shopping with someone who could live next door to me, someone who knows the challenges of my community, and supports local writers," he said. "It makes the decision to shop local very easy."

BookShop.org

Book sales have soared over the past few years, both physically and digitally, thanks to the downtime the COVID pandemic created.

Inflation and gas prices have wreaked some havoc on book sales of late, but they still remain higher than at this point in time during pre-pandemic 2019.

Not everyone has easy access to a bookstore, be it chain or local, however. Some smaller cities and towns have library options, but if someone wants to purchase a book, Amazon is the most likely option.

It doesn't have to be.

Jill Christman, a memoirist and Ball State professor, whose new book "If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays" arrives Sept. 1, 2022, said purchasing online is the best option for her. She bypasses Amazon, however, and goes instead to BookShop.org.

BookShop.org launched in January 2020 and partners with independent bookstores. Customers may select a bookstore to support with their purchase, and that bookstore will receive a portion of the funds from each sale. If no bookstore is chosen, money will be added to a general fund and split between all the bookstores affiliated with the website.

BookShop.org says it has raised nearly $22 million for independent bookstores since it opened.

"In the last five to 10 years there has been a movement to support local businesses and also local artists," Saner said.

Jamison said he is unable to get chain stores to carry his book, even those located in the same town as he. However, when he reaches out to an independent bookstore they almost always begin selling his memoir.

Many of the bookstores work to support local writers, hosting book signings and readings. Between the Pages hopes to go as far as creating a little in-store library so their customers can check out books and sample local and unknown authors, creating a try-before-you-buy option.

"There's just something about a bookstore," said Marden. "It's not like 'here's another place to eat' or whatever. I've had people say 'I feel like this is the hope for our community. This place is hope that we are gonna be OK.' There's something about that knowledge, or idea that people are going to be OK if we can support a place like this."