Most people don’t think of Cincinnati as a book mecca,” says Joseph-Beth Booksellers president and CEO Adam Miller, noting that besides a number of new and used bookstores, the Queen City (population 309,000) boasts five universities and an abundance of public and specialty libraries. “It surprises people from elsewhere when they see the book culture here and how strong it really is.”

Indie booksellers everywhere were disappointed when the American Booksellers Association canceled Winter Institute, which was set to take place February 13–16 in Cincinnati, because of the surge in Covid cases. Local booksellers’ disappointment was intensified by the loss of an opportunity to show off their city’s rich literary offerings. “Oh, no, they were coming, and now they’re not,” said Chris Weber, co-owner of the Bookshelf, located in a 1,400-square-foot building in the Madeira neighborhood. “We were so looking forward to welcoming the visiting booksellers.” The Bookshelf, founded by three women as a collective in 1975, is perhaps the city’s oldest indie selling new books, and last year switched from operating as a collective to an employer-employee model. Weber, who has worked at the store for more than 20 years and serves as the store’s buyer, owns it with Jacque Gentile.

“We are an extremely well-curated bookstore,” Weber said, comparing it to the fictional bar, Cheers: the staff knows the regulars by name, as well as their literary preferences. “I am extremely picky. I don’t bring in books that I don’t want to read myself, and I tend to be pretty literary.”

Farther west, Joseph-Beth is a local institution with a bistro, coffee shop, and large selection of gifts and sidelines, all attracting a different demographic than the Bookshelf. Founded in 1986, there were once five Joseph-Beth outlets in Ohio and Kentucky, but today two remain: the original flagship store in Lexington, Ky., and the 35,000-square-foot store in Cincinnati. Miller said sales have been good during the pandemic, something he attributes to Joseph-Beth booksellers being “deeply embedded” in the community, which has spurred customers to rally around it, even when it was closed to in-person shopping and events were canceled. Programming is the “backbone of what we do,” Miller said, explaining that, due to the resources at its disposal, Joseph-Beth not only attracts local and regional authors, but has also booked major national authors. “We recognize that supporting local, regional, and national authors, as well as makers and creators, is part of what it means to be local, so we take it very seriously,” Miller said, adding that it has had a “halo effect” on the smaller local indies.

A proliferation of indies

According to several local industry veterans PW spoke with, the city has seen a jump in new bookstore openings in recent years. Michael Link, who first worked at Joseph-Beth in 2007 and now works for Wordplay, a local literacy organization, said that the number of bookstores has doubled in the past 15 years and continues to grow “with some really different and innovative models.”

“We’ve been around for over two years, but as far as doing our day-to-day and making inroads into the community, I feel as if we’re fairly new,” said Greg Kornbluh, the owner of Downbound Books, who moved back to his hometown three years ago after leaving his job in marketing and sales at Harvard University Press. Launched in October 2019, the 550-square-foot full-service general store closed to in-store traffic in March 2020 for 14 months. While he did not move back to Cincinnati with the express purpose of opening a bookstore, Kornbluh opened Downbound Books because, he said, “there was no bookstore on my side of town.”

As for the pandemic, Kornbluh said it “actually accelerated” the building of relationships that a neighborhood bookstore depends upon for survival. Since he lives above the store, he personally delivered books throughout the area. “This helped people find us in some ways.”

More recently, Haixia “Joy” Niu and Matt Stonecash opened Joy and Matt’s Books in the Over-the-Rhine area this past summer, just down the street from Smith & Hannon, a 19-year-old store owned by retired educator Joyce Smith. Smith & Hannon sells new and used books by Black authors, as well as sidelines and various other products targeting African American customers. The store moved to its current location two years ago after being housed inside the Underground Railroad Freedom Center for three years. “The book business is a hard business,” Smith said, acknowledging that the store is struggling to recover from the pandemic.

Stonecash, a former engineer, said that he and his wife, a former scientist, opened Joy and Matt’s because they enjoy browsing inside bookstores and their neighborhood lacked a full-service general bookstore. “We wanted a general bookstore close by that we could walk to,” he said. “People have told us they feel the same way, so since we’re lovers of books and reading, we decided to connect people in our neighborhood to new books and ideas.” Thus far, the 550-square-foot store, with its mix of 75% new/25% used books is “making the rent,” Stonecash said.

Emphasizing literacy

Several bookstores pay special attention to children’s books and literacy. The Blue Manatee, opened in 2011 as a children’s bookstore, was sold three years ago by its founder, John Hutton, to Amanda Kranias and Kevin Kushman, who renamed it the Blue Manatee Literacy Project. Incorporated as a nonprofit organization that sells both adult and children’s books, its mission, Kranias said, is to “make a difference in Cincinnati by getting books into the hands of under-resourced children.” For every book sold, a book is donated to one of the city’s 35,000 students lacking a book at home. To date, 50,000 books have been donated.

An even more nontraditional approach to promoting literacy also launched three years ago: Cincy Book Bus, owned by Melanie Moore, a retired teacher. Moore sells primarily adult fiction in a 1962 VW truck; 100% of the profit is directed toward purchasing books for schools in low-income neighborhoods.

“I always dreamed of opening a bookstore,” Moore said, recalling that after reading Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, she noticed her husband’s truck in the driveway. “It all just clicked,” she recalls. “The truck could become my bookstore.” After generating $3,000 in profits in 2019, Moore says profits rose to $76,000 in 2021.

Bookseller Dave Richardson, who worked at the Blue Marble in nearby Covington, Ky., for 19 years, left there two years ago to start his 451 Books. Richardson had intended to open a bricks-and-mortar children’s bookstore, but because of the pandemic, he switched to a pop-up model, sandwiched every weekend between a popular bakery and a wine shop. The bakery maintains a shelf of books during the week and sells them for Richardson, who focuses on school and library sales during the week.

Richardson intends to expand his pop-up business to include appearances at local farmers’ markets, where he’ll sell adult and children’s books by authors with Queen City ties or books set in the city. He also hopes to feature local authors and illustrators at the pop-ups. “We’re going along with the idea that at these markets, everything is local,” Richardson said. “We’ve got a really strong group of people here who’ve been writing and doing some really wonderful things.”

Editor’s Note: The ABA replaced Winter Institute with the online Snow Days retreat. See our supplement in this issue for the details of the new event.