Two years after Winter Institute was abruptly canceled in 2022 due to an upsurge in Covid-19 cases, booksellers are poised to descend upon Cincinnati for four days of education, networking, parties, authors, books, and, of course, organized bookstore tours spotlighting the Queen City’s vibrant mix of venerable older stores and sassy little neighborhood shops.

“Everyone is excited: it’s been a long time coming,” says Chris Weber, the co-owner of The Bookshelf, Cincinnati’s oldest bookstore selling new books, which is housed in a 1,400-sq.-ft. building in the inner-ring suburb of Madeira. Founded by three women as a collective in 1975, The Bookshelf traditionally emphasized high-minded literary offerings, but Weber “broke down” a year or two ago, she says, and began selling romance. She also started stocking graphic novels for young readers and the Marvel reissues. Customers seem to appreciate it: sales were 20% higher in 2023 than in 2022.

Joseph-Beth Booksellers, east of downtown, is a local institution founded in 1986, with a bistro, a coffee shop, and a large selection of gifts and sidelines supplementing the 42,000 titles in its inventory. At Joseph-Beth’s peak, there were five branches in Ohio and Kentucky. Today, two outlets remain: the original flagship store in Lexington, Ky., and the 35,000-sq.-ft. store in Cincinnati.

Describing the store’s robust programming, including daily story times, as the “backbone of what we do,” Joseph-Beth CEO Adam Miller says that, due to the store’s large size and marketing expertise, it regularly draws major national authors. “Supporting local, regional, and national authors is part of what it means to be local. We take it very seriously.”

Miller adds that it has had a “halo effect” on the smaller indies dotting Queen City neighborhoods.

A burst of neighborhood stores

Bookstores have long thrived in Cincinnati—some selling new books and many others, including Household Books, selling used, vintage, and rare titles. Cincy Book Rack on the east side of town is renowned for its genre fiction and manga selections, as well as for games and gaming. Scarlet Rose Retail sells books alongside clothing and accessories; Shake It Records sells comic books, vintage paperbacks, and books on music and popular culture.

“Most people don’t think of Cincinnati as a book mecca,” Miller observes. “It surprises people from elsewhere when they see the book culture here and how strong it really is.”

Michael Link, Joseph-Beth’s manager of events and community relations, says that the number of bookstores in the metro area has doubled in the 15 years he’s lived there, with “some really different and innovative models” in a city that residents describe as a cluster of small towns. Several small bookstores have opened in recent years to serve neighborhoods that previously lacked general bookstores.

Greg Kornbluh, owner of Downbound Books, moved back to his hometown six years ago after working in marketing and sales at Harvard University Press. He launched Downbound Books in October 2019 in a 550-sq.-ft. space on the Northside because, he says, “there was no bookstore on my side of town, and there hadn’t been for a while.” Sales in 2023 were 5% higher than in 2022, he adds. “On the whole, things are trending in the right direction.”

Haixia “Joy” Niu, a former scientist, and Matt Stonecash, a former engineer, opened Joy and Matt’s Bookshop in summer 2021 in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Joy and Matt’s sells 75% new and 25% used books in its 550-sq.-ft. space. “We wanted a general bookstore close by that we could walk to,” Stonecash says. “People 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.”

More recently, Bookery Cincy opened in January 2022 by David and Sierra Hollabaugh as an online store, and it moved into a 1,200-sq.-ft.bricks-and-mortar space in Cincinnati’s oldest neighborhood, Columbia Tusculum, that October. It’s a general bookstore that prides itself on its large selection of children’s books. “We intended to open a bookstore when we retired,” says Sierra, a former English teacher. “But we sold books online during the pandemic and it went really well; people kept coming back for recommendations. So we said, what are we waiting for?”

While the store primarily serves the neighborhood, a bookstore crawl it participated in this past fall with 11 other bookstores has drawn in new customers from around the city.

Booksellers with a mission

Five years ago, retired school teacher Melanie Moore launched Cincy Book Bus to sell primarily adult fiction from the bed of a mint-green 1962 VW pickup truck, which she parks outside coffee shops and boutiques around the metro from May through October. In November 2022, Moore expanded into suburban Sharonville by opening the Book Bus Depot, a 5,000-sq.-ft. bricks-and-mortar store. Moore parks the VW bus inside the building from November to April, and a volunteer staff sells new and used books in all genres.

The store, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, donates 100% of its profits to Cincinnati’s inner-city school literacy programs. “Last year was a record year,” Moore says, with $81,000 donated to the schools.

In October 2022, Amanda Ackley opened The Bookmatters, a general bookstore that maintains the commitment to literacy of her previous venture, the Blue Manatee Literacy Project. For every children’s book sold, The Bookmatters donates a book to the As Told By Foundation, which promotes literacy among Black youth. “We get customers from all over the metro, even from Kentucky, due to our social media,” says buyer Isa Fernandez.

Four years ago, Dave Richardson left The Blue Marble children’s bookstore in nearby Fort Thomas, Ky., after 19 years to launch his own children’s bookstore, 451 Books. Due to the pandemic, he pivoted to a pop-up model. Besides operating a weekend pop-up inside a local cookie shop, Richardson now sells online and to schools and libraries.

Across the Ohio River

The Queen City area’s wealth of bookstores extends beyond Ohio into Northern Kentucky. On the south side of the Ohio River, The Blue Marble is marking its 45th anniversary this year. It is the first stop on the bookstore tour set for February 11, when it will serve locally roasted coffee and bakery treats to booksellers and offer 10% discounts on purchases.

In Covington, Ky., Roebling Point Books & Coffee can be found on the ground floor of the mid-19th-century building housing the offices of publisher AdventureKeen. It’s a “great walking neighborhood,” says AdventureKeen president Richard Hunt, and “the Covington and Northern Kentucky communities deserve bookstores—unique, friendly, fiercely First Amendment–driven places to work, hang out, welcome friends, and make new ones.”

AdventureKeen is co-hosting with a number of industry organizations a party honoring the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) on February 12 at Covington’s Second Story Bar from 7 to 10 p.m.

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