There's more to Indiana than the Indy 500 and NCAA basketball. Writers Kurt Vonnegut, Rex Stout and Booth Tarkington all hail from the Hoosier State.
But despite this rich literary heritage, "The whole literary scene is practically invisible," said Jim Huang, the owner of the Mystery Company Bookstore and publisher of Crum Creek Press. Huang moved his bookstore and small press to the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel from Kalamazoo, Mich., four years ago. "It's become part of our mission to help people see Indiana writers and how good they are. People in Indiana have a lot to be proud of."
While it does seem as if one might have to search for signs of literary life in Indiana, it exists. It's even thriving. Almost 300 stores sell books to the 6,328,000 residents of a state renowned for its public and private colleges and universities, including Purdue, Notre Dame, Butler and Indiana University. Of the 291 stores selling books, 142 are bookstores. Considering Indiana's socially conservative culture, it's no surprise that 62 are CBA stores, while 45 are ABA stores. The rest are chain bookstores—including 26 Borders and Waldenbooks stores and 14 Barnes & Noble stores.
Of those 142 bookstores, almost one-third serve the 1.64 million residents of the greater Indianapolis metro area. One hundred bookstores serve the rest of what is still primarily a rural state, boasting only a handful of small cities, beyond Indianapolis. Of the 42 bookstores in the metro area, 16 are chain bookstores, 16 are CBA stores and 10 are ABA stores. Nine of those ABA member stores fill a niche, such as the Mystery Company, as well as the Wild, Kids Ink, and 4 Kids, all children's bookstores. There's a gay/lesbian bookstore, Out Word Bound, and a feminist bookstore, A Shade of Gray, which specializes in books by lesbian women of color.
But there is only one general independent bookstore in Indianapolis, Big Hat Books, which opened its doors two years ago.
"Indy is where you come to try out your concept for a chain—not just bookstores, but everything. If your concept for a chain works out in Indy, you're gold," Elizabeth Houghton Barden, Big Hat's owner said, describing the local retailing landscape, while explaining why a metropolis as large as the Circle City would have only one general independent, and that one only 1,100 square feet in size.
Like Indianapolis, the gritty industrial cities and bucolic college towns dotting the state all have their chain bookstores and mass merchandisers—and, just like Indianapolis, each of these cities and towns boasts at least one independent bookstore as well. But it's in the more rural areas that independent bookstores are flourishing.
"Indiana bookstores are like the state itself. They're specialty and small stores in a state that's primarily agricultural and rural," Jim Dana, executive director of the Great Lakes Booksellers Association, said.
"This is a state that—other than Indianapolis and the other cities—really depends on independent bookstores," he added.
Of the half-dozen bookstores that have opened in the Hoosier State in the past three years, two—Summer Stories in Kendallville, near northern Ohio, and Words of Wisdom in Jasper, southern Illinois—are located in small towns at opposite ends of the state, each with less than 12,000 residents.
"Our only competition is Wal-Mart," Michelle O'Connor, Words of Wisdom's owner, said. "But we co-exist. People go to Wal-Mart for the discounted bestsellers, and they come here for everything else."
"Numerous people have even told me when they couldn't find a book at Wal-Mart, they were told to come here," she added. "This is a small town. And smalltown people look out for each other."