Since 2006, there's been a miniboom in independent bookstore openings with more than 250 entering the market. Late last month, however, two of these bookstores closed: Storybook Lane Book Shoppe in San Carlos, Calif., and Under the Sycamore Tree in Grayslake, Ill. In a letter to the ABC listserv, the Storybook Lane founder, Karen Elmore, wrote, “These last two years have been a struggle, but moving in an upward direction until this current economy hit us hard. I have tried everything, but I think it's time to face the music and get out before I get in even more debt.”

Are these two closings an aberration or are they the tip of the iceberg at a time of economic turmoil? “We try to remain optimistic, but it's challenging,” said Donna Paz, who has trained would-be booksellers for 16 years. “I think people have some gut-level instincts that are wrong like, how hard can it be? It comes down to things like paying your payroll tax and what to do if your employee's kid gets sick. It's hard to keep all the balls in the air. Layer upon that the real estate boom that took rents really high.” Interviews with nine new booksellers found some doing well while others face more of a struggle, but all remain hopeful that their stores will pull through.

Some new owners are juggling like seasoned pros. “Business is doing really well,” said Peter Makin, cofounder of 1,200-sq.-ft. Brilliant Books! in the vacation community of Sutton's Bay, Mich. “My background was in marketing. To me the message you give out about your store is key,” he noted. When his store opened in mid-December 2007 without any shelves, Makin turned it into a marketing opportunity and composed a story for his customers about the Little Blue Store with No Shelves. The story is still available on the Web site (, even though Makin added shelves and a second storefront in the spring.

At year-old Comics & Classics, a 1,500-sq.-ft. combination comic store, bookstore and art gallery, sales have gone up every month, said Kimberly Jackson, who owns the store in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., with her husband, Percy. A former teacher, she educates area schools about using manga and comics in the classroom, which has paid off with school sales and whole families coming to the store to shop. “My [bookselling] philosophy is good stories and good art,” said Jackson, who stocks comics by local artists, graphic novels, literary fiction and science fiction and fantasy.

Jackson's not the only new bookseller to experiment with fusing different types of stores. Former stock brokers Sandi and Will Pearson mix new and rare at Pages, which opened this spring in Cave Creek, Ariz. They took the idea from Guy Bryant, owner of Bryant's Rare Books and Documents in Truckee, Calif., from whom they purchased much of their inventory of rare books, maps and documents. He told them that if he were to do it again, he would sell both. So far it's working for the Pearsons. “I don't think there are many sales that are rare only,” said Will. So far, they have survived the slow summer months and are looking forward to seeing how business picks up when the snowbirds arrive.

Sports and business writer David Magee, author of Playing to Win: Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys, prefers the tried and true bookstore model. “I learned a long time ago, if you want to be successful, imitate the successful,” he said. When he and local public relations guru Albert Waterhouse opened Rock Point Books in Chattanooga, Tenn., in November 2006, they patterned it after Richard Howarth's Square Books in Oxford, Miss., with lots of events. Even so, Magee is finding today's market a challenge. “We planned to do $400,000 the first year, and we did. Right now, we're tracking flat from the first year. This year has shown me a mere presence and an event isn't enough,” he said. Taking another page from Square Books, he and Waterhouse are looking into starting a live radio broadcast from the store, à la Square Book Thacker Mountain Radio.

Because of the economy, this has also been a tough year for Garrard Bradley, owner of 800-sq.-ft. Imagine Atrium in Jersey City, N.J., which opened in 2006. Initially, Bradley wanted to start a knowledge store. When he realized that wasn't practical, he turned it into a bookstore. Because of its size, Bradley is finding it hard to do events. “It's pretty much a one-man show,” he said. “I coordinate events, run the store and pay the bills. That's the catch-22 when you're starting a business. You don't have the staff you need.” To attract customers, he's added a niche, French books for kids. He is also an active blogger on

Flintridge Bookstore and Coffee House in La Cañada, Calif., has significantly deeper pockets and more space than Imagine Atrium. The owners are currently renting space, and although the year-old store is not yet in the black, owners Peter Wannier, a retired professor of astrophysics at Caltech, and his wife, Lenora, a former librarian, are moving forward with plans to build a one-story 6,400-sq.-ft. bookstore with underground parking and a clock tower. “Overall, it's working as expected,” said Peter. “Our sales aren't quite what we wanted, but we're not collapsing. Our children's section is one of our shining stars.” Other strong areas include fiction, graphic novels and architecture.

Sometimes experience can make all the difference. It has certainly helped two-year-old Pearl Street Books in Ellensburg, Wash., weather the ups and downs of today's economy better than some of its neighbors in the community's historic downtown, which have closed. Owner Glenna Martin previously worked at A Book for All Seasons in Leavenworth, Wash., and Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane before opening her first bookstore, Periwinkle Station in Florence, Ore. Pearl Street does best with general fiction, regional and children's.

Wyn Morris, owner of the Morris Book Shop in Lexington, Ky., and his partner, Hap Houlihan, have also benefited from their years at Joseph-Beth Booksellers and from those who remember the original Morris Book Shop, which closed in 1978. In the four months since it opened, the store has consistently hit its break-even of $500 a day. Houlihan attributes that to a strong regional section. In addition, he and Morris are trying to educate customers about the real meaning of “selection.” “We're trying to take back the word 'selection,' ” he said. “It's used as a synonym for inventory. For us, selecting is an active verb.”

Red Fox Books in Glens Falls, N.Y., is very familiar with selection, given that the two-year-old store is already running out of space. “We are outgrowing the store at the moment. That's one of the biggest challenges,” said Naftali Rottenstreich, who co-owns the 1,500-sq.-ft. store with his wife, Susan Fox. “We've had a very strong summer. This was an area that had been clamoring for a bookstore.” So far they're doing best with children's, fiction, biography, local titles and self-help. “Nonbook items don't sell as well for us as books,” said Fox, who has experimented with some used books as well.

In the long-term, whether experience, distinctive inventory, new ways of merchandising or deep pockets will be enough for the latest crop of bookstores to weather the all-important first five years of business is anyone's guess. “In retail,” said Pearl Street's Martin, “you hate to say things are good. You don't want to jinx it.” But if her store's increases of 20% in July and 30% in August are any indication, business is moving in the right direction.