Megan Raphael, executive director of the National Writers Series, a literary nonprofit organization, in Traverse City, Mich., insists that local government leaders should declare it a “book city.” After all, there are now three full-service general bookstores serving the approximately 15,000 year-round residents of this well-heeled northern Michigan resort town: Horizon Books, Brilliant Books, and Books-A-Million. Two niche book retailers also serve the community: Talking Books, which specializes in audiobooks, and Higher Self, a New Age bookstore. Plus, there are the used bookstores, Book Cellar and Bookie Joint.
What makes the vibrancy of Traverse City’s book retailing scene even more noteworthy is that two of the three general bookstores are located in its compact downtown, and two of the three have opened within the past six weeks. Brilliant Books opened for business on October 21 in a 3,600-sq.-ft. retail space a block away from Horizon Books, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in September. On November 3, BAM! expanded into the Wolverine State by opening one of two Michigan outlets four miles away, in the Grand Traverse Crossing shopping center. The space previously had been a Borders outlet.
Brilliant Books is the second bookstore launched by Peter Makin, who in 2007 founded his first Brilliant Books store in Suttons Bay, 16 miles north of Traverse City. Asked why Makin decided to open a store in Traverse City, he cited its highly educated and literate populace, pointing out that Livability.com, a lifestyles Web site, recently named Traverse City the nation’s sixth best city for book lovers.
According to Livability.com, what Traverse City lacks in quantity of retailers, it makes up for in quality. Referring to Horizon Books, which in late September—when the Livability.com report was published—was the only general bookstore in town, the Web site declared, “It’s got the one, and it does the one well.” Horizon, located in a 22,000-sq.-ft. retail space, has long been regarded as a downtown anchor. Although sales declined a few years ago, after Michigan’s fragile economy went into a free fall, store manager Jill Beauchamp says they’ve since rebounded. She says that September, normally slow, was “much better than in past years,” a trend that she attributes to a combination of the store’s September 24 anniversary celebration drawing in hundreds of customers, the closing of Borders earlier that month, and a packed author events schedule this fall spotlighting popular local writers.
Makin and Beauchamp both expressed confidence that Traverse City can comfortably accommodate two independent bookstores, since it’s a major commercial hub in a seven-county area containing more than 142,000 residents.
“We’re a boutique bookstore, a readers store. Horizon has a cafe and a huge display of magazines,” Makin explains. “People come to us when they want to explore different authors, to get the best in a genre, whereas [Horizon] calls themselves ‘The Third Space,’ a place to hang out.”
Some observers believe that Traverse City’s growing reputation as a city of book lovers can also be attributed to the National Writers Series, founded in 2009. Each month, the NWS brings at least one celebrity author to Traverse City, where they read from and discuss their work at a ticketed event held in a 19th-century opera house. The series typically draws audiences of 350–700, who pay $15 and up for admission; in October David Sedaris performed before 800 people. Horizon, which handled the book sales for the reading declined to disclose how many books were sold, though Beauchamp says about 20% of series attendees buy at least one book at a typical event.
Horizon Books has handled book sales at every NWS event except for Tom Perrotta’s appearance in September, which was handled by Brilliant Books. Raphael reports that the organization wants to partner with local bookstores by rotating bookselling responsibilities “around the community.” NWS also wants to build partnerships with independent bookstores elsewhere. For instance, NWS arranged with Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, more than 60 miles away, to sell book-and-ticket packages in October for both the Sedaris and Jeffrey Eugenides NWS appearances.
“We want to support our local independent bookstores—we don’t want to undercut them,” Raphael says, noting that NWS receives a ”small percentage” of the profits made from book sales at its performances.