Though the pandemic caused financial hardship for many independent bookstores, particularly those in cities and states that forced retailers to close their doors for months, it has also paved the way for a mini-boom of bookstore openings. “I’ve gotten a lot of, ‘Why would you open during a pandemic? That’s brave,’ ” said Kari Ferguson, who opened an online children’s bookstore, Oh Hello Again, in June 2020, followed by a general bookstore of the same name in the Capitol Hill section of Seattle in December. “But really, the pandemic allowed me to open a physical location, because rent prices dropped on retail spaces due to store closings. The community has been so supportive. I think people are enthralled with the novelty of a business opening rather than shutting down during Covid.” Ferguson said her previous experience opening and running a children’s bookstore in Vancouver, Wash., has enabled her to keep costs down.
Other new bookstore owners have been able to follow through, in part, because they got rent breaks from their landlords. Jennifer Caspar, founder of Village Well Books and Coffee in Culver City, Calif., signed a lease in February 2020, just ahead of pandemic shutdowns. She didn’t start paying rent on her 3,000-sq.-ft. space until November; the official store opening was on Jan. 2, 2021. “I just always felt like it wasn’t going to be that much longer,” Caspar said, “and I could deal with my architect and contractor and get my permits.”
While she waited to open, Caspar began selling books online from her home and delivering them herself. So far, she said, store revenue is exceeding her expectations.
While acknowledging that the disruption of Covid has been challenging and that some bookstores are still struggling, Allison Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, noted that “there’s also been growth in ABA membership.” She also pointed to “exciting trends in new stores—more diversity, location-independent formats, smaller sizes with room for growth—and an increased interest in nonprofit and co-op models.”
Since the membership numbers were presented by ABA president Bradley Graham, co-owner of D.C.’s Politics and Prose, at the annual meeting in May, they have been readjusted upward due to delays in renewals caused by Covid. Membership and locations rose from 1,701 and 2,100 respectively to 1,910 and 2,496 for 2021.
Some regional associations have also experienced jumps in membership during the pandemic. The Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association added 48 new members since the beginning of 2020, mostly small stores with one to five employees, according to executive director Heather Duncan. New members include 29 bookstores that opened in the past two years, as well as three slated for 2022.
New England Independent Booksellers Association head Beth Ineson reported that her region gained 23 new stores over the past two membership cycles. Among them are two prospective bookstores and three Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shops that opened in the wake of the closure of Sherman’s Camden store due to the pandemic. That brings Maine’s oldest bookstore chain’s location count to eight.
Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, said at the group’s annual meeting that membership rose to 178 in 2021, after hovering in recent years at 140.
Some regionals are considering changing membership requirements. The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance may begin offering stores with nontraditional and emerging bookstore models like pop-ups, bookmobiles, and book fairs full membership. “We all benefit from innovation and diversity, idea-sharing, and looking at relationships with customers and our communities with new eyes and approaches,” said executive director Linda-Marie Barrett, who has seen 2021 membership stay roughly the same as that of 2019, at 152.
The California Independent Booksellers Association was formed too recently to have long-term statistics, but coexecutive director Ann Seaton points to the opening of a number of new smaller bookstores that help underserved populations, such as the online intersectional feminist bookstore Subverting Expectations, which launched in August and is based in Anaheim, and Libélula Books & Co, which was started by two self-described “queer latinx folx” in San Diego in June and provides free Wi-Fi, a community laptop, and tutoring services.
“What stands out to me,” Seaton said about the new stores, “is the desire to make books available to their neighborhoods, speak to underserved populations, or even provide needed services within their communities.”
As interest in opening new bookstores continues, so too does interest in transforming long-established ones like Denver’s Tattered Cover (see “Tattered Cover Broadens Its Reach,” p. 6). Stores that had curtailed expansion plans as a result of last year’s lockdowns have begun to scout new locations.
That’s the case for 38-year-old Shakespeare & Co., which has two outlets in New York City and one in Philadelphia. “We are now cautiously looking at new store sites in the Northeast, if the rent is right,” said CEO Dane Neller. “But our main focus is on our existing stores.”
Bookstore consultant Mark Kaufman of Paz & Associates noted, “In the first nine months of this year, 210 people have contacted us for information about owning a bookstore.” That’s a 20% increase over 2019. Interest in opening stores seems to be strongest, he added, in the Midwest and in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Kaufman said the one thing prospective booksellers want to create is a community gathering place. This reflects a desire to counter the isolation that many people have felt during the pandemic.
Shane Gottwals, founder of Gottwals Books, opened four stores through his franchising operation, Walls of Books, in early 2020, before inquiries dried up because of the pandemic. Since then he has opened only one store, an 8,000-sq.-ft. location at the Shoppes at Parma in Parma, Ohio, in July 2021, for a total of 14 stores. What makes this bookstore unique among his franchisees is its focus on new books rather than used.
Recently, Gottwals has seen a turnaround. One franchisee who had been considering filing for personal bankruptcy is now planning to open a second store, and Gottwals has had new inquiries from people in California, Georgia, and Texas. Sales have also rebounded. “Across all the franchise,” he said, “we sold as much in the first eight months of 2021 as we did in 2020.”
Black bookstores’ growth
Though it may be hard to measure just how much the reverberations from George Floyd’s murder contributed to the opening of Black bookstores, the number of such stores has more than doubled, from 54 at the nadir in 2014 to 111 today, according to Troy Johnson, founder and webmaster of Aalbc.com (the African American Literature Book Club). In addition to operating the oldest Black online bookstore, Johnson opened his first monthlong pop-up in Tulsa, Okla., the Black Wall Street Bookstore, in August to mark the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The store was so successful that he continues to supply the Greenwood Welcome Center, where the store was located, with books.
Among some of the newer stores on Johnson’s list are second locations for established stores like MahoganyBooks in Washington, D.C., which opened a bookstore at the National Harbor in Prince George’s County in July, and Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia, which held a soft opening for its sister store, Ida’s Bookshop in Collingswood, N.J., on the Fourth of July.
Harriett’s founder and owner Jeannine Cook is in the midst of readying a new nearby location for the original Harriett’s, after raising close to $236,000 through GoFundMe to purchase the building and receiving a grant from the Merchant Fund for renovations. A groundbreaking ceremony will take place early next year. Cook is already considering options for a third store, named for Sojourner Truth, possibly in Harlem.
Thirty-two-year-old Malik Books in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles also expanded during the pandemic, despite a significant drop in revenue when the store was forced to close for six months. “The pandemic aggressively pushed me out to do marketing and to engage our community locally and nationally,” said founder Malik Muhammad. He added that he was able to benefit from the Black Lives Matter movement precisely because he had a marketing campaign and a website in place. In July 2020, he began doing book reviews for Ryan Seacrest’s syndicated radio show, On Air with Ryan Seacrest, which led to an appearance by Muhammad and his wife, April Muhammad, in January on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Following a GoFundMe campaign that raised just over $24,000, Muhammad opened a temporary second location at the Westfield Culver City mall last November. With a boost from two highly successful preorder campaigns—one for Virgil Abloh’s Icons and the other for Nicole LePera’s How to Do the Work—he is in the midst of negotiating an extended lease.
“It was a leap of faith, so we didn’t want to go into a long-term thing,” Muhammad said about opening the second location. “I consider it my best decision of 2020.”