The Renegades of Middle Grade, a community of middle grade writers committed to supporting one another on social media, is expanding its reach by promoting indie bookstores online. On June 21, the official first day of summer, the Renegades launched the Indie 500, a campaign to promote a total of 500 indies.

For the rest of the summer, through September 21, James Ponti, the founder of and driving force behind Indie 500, and 10 of his fellow Renegades are taking turns boosting a different bookstore on their social media platforms with the hashtag #Indie500Books. Ponti intends to tweet about 50 indies, while each of the other 10 Renegades will tweet every other day about 45 indies, for a total of 500 indies during the 90-day period.

“We just want this to be about celebrating these stores and what makes each of them special,” Ponti said on the day that he kicked off the campaign by posting a tweet lauding Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, describing it as “an amazing store [that] hosts the awesome @[Tweens Read Book Festival]” That same day, Janae Marks was another Renegade tweeting about a favorite indie, 44th & Third Booksellers in Atlanta: “They specialize in curating books by/about African American authors and authors from the African diaspora.” Also on June 21, Lisa McMann tweeted, “I’m starting #indie500books with The Wandering Jellyfish, a lovely ‘mostly children’s’ bookshop in Niwot, Colo., not far from Denver or Boulder. They are not quite a year old but already hosting tons of events for kids and for writers.”

All of the Renegades provide at least one photo and up to three, tag the bookstore they are spotlighting in the tweet, and also tag the American Booksellers Association (@ABAbook).

Ponti explains that the Indie 500 is a labor of love on the behalf of the Renegades, who want to raise awareness about indie bookstores in a world where too many people shop online at Amazon because they do not realize that indies provide a viable alternative. “Bookstores are doing great,” he said, “but we need to support them. People need to be reminded that it’s worth it to go to your local indie and find some books you might not find otherwise.”

Summer of Love for Booksellers

According to Ponti, whose group promotes schools and libraries during the academic year, children typically discover the work of most children’s authors either through a teacher, a librarian, or a local bookseller. “Handselling is so important,” he pointed out, “We need to thank the people who do that because we reap the benefits. We have stores singing our praises—it’s only right for us to sing their praises without any hope of return.”

Ponti’s inspiration for the campaign came last summer, when he visited 15 bookstores in New England and then tweeted about them, as well as 15 other bookstores he liked, during the month of July.

“Every summer, I like to do something for bookstores,” he said. “This summer I wanted to do it again [tweeting about his favorite stores], but I did not want to do the same stores over and over. And then Indie 500 popped into my head, but I couldn’t do 500 of them myself.”

After Ponti sent an email to 10 of the 32 Renegades—Marks and McMann, as well as Jen Calonita, Lisa Fipps, Katrina Yan Glaser, Alyson Gerber, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Supriya Kelkar, Hena Khan, and Jarrett Lerner—suggesting that they join him in promoting their favorite indies, he was pleasantly surprised that all agreed to do it.

After compiling a list of 200 bookstores, the group approached the American Booksellers Association for assistance in building up the list to 500 stores. The ABA sent the Renegades a list of the 900 bookstore members of the ABC Children’s Group, which they winnowed down, arriving at a total of 500 bookstores. Each Renegade selected 10 bookstores they were already familiar with, and were encouraged to complete their individual rosters with stores they were not already acquainted with, because, as Ponti put it, “just talking to stores you already know isn’t fun.”

“There was some overlap,” Ponti recalled, “and I told them we can’t have anyone duplicating stores, so [with] Rock Paper Scissors and bribes, we figured it out.”

“Everyone then checked in on what they’re good at,” Ponti said, noting that Lerner, who both writes and illustrates his books, created a logo, and Diaz Gonzalez “made the templates for people who don’t know how to Photoshop.” Participating bookstores were also asked to take and send three photos for the Renegades’ use.

While Ponti emphasizes that the exercise is about “building friendships and partnerships between authors and indies,” it actually serves an even more important purpose, he noted: Indie 500 is not just lavishing attention on beloved and well-known bookstores, but is also introducing fledgling bookstores launched by BIPOC entrepreneurs to the industry as well as potential customers.

“Just like we’ve been building representation in the writing side,” Ponti explained, “the bookstores have been building representation for some underrepresented groups. We’re trying to spotlight those stores that haven’t gotten that much attention. There are some indies everyone knows about but there are a lot of little stores that we don’t even know about. When we find them, we need to make sure people know. And we need to make sure these booksellers know that we’re in their corner.”