How Indie Book Stores Keep Communities Vibrant

With the fall of Borders, the community bookstore is experiencing a moment of revival. Despite the prevalence of e-commerce and growing demand for e-books, independent entrepreneurs are facing a daunting future with renewed optimism and a feisty individualism that is redefining their literary curiosity shops., a search and publicity service of the American Booksellers Association, lists more than 30 independent bookstores in Southeast Michigan. Among the attributes of community bookstores, according to IndieBound, is their “individuality” and their “common cause of keeping our cities interesting.”

Community bookstores don’t pretend to offer anywhere near the selection of the large book retailers. But they tend to offer a slice of the book market that their customers want that may be a little “weird and quirky”, as well as a gathering place of like-minded people.

Magina Books in Lincoln Park, one of the oldest independent bookstore in the region, dating back to 1948, specializes in history books, as well as books of local interest. Used on New, recently opened in downtown Mt. Clemens, is strictly a used book store. Leopold’s Books in Midtown Detroit fashions itself as a “gallery” of books catering to those interested in the arts and fashion.

Books may be the product and identity of these stores, but communal activity defines their culture. Book Beat in Oak Park has an art gallery featuring shows that complement the shop’s extensive collection of art books. Magina customers have become so comfortable hanging out at the store they told owner Steve Magina to get a checkerboard. Squirreled Away Books, in Armada, features literary and musical events, and hosts game nights for customers to play Monopoly, Scrabble and other board games.

The Borders bankruptcy has given independents a boost, but they’re still struggling. What’s intriguing is the passion each bring to their business — sometimes a quiet determinism, other times a loud cry for real time culture.

Bookstore owners are known for their “scrappiness, stubbornness,” and their ability to keep profit expectations low, explains Carolyn Sweeney, who founded Squirreled Away seven years ago, after working in Borders and other bookstores. Her store offers hardbound and paperback books; largely mysteries, agriculture topics, and “lots of books about tractors.”

Bookstore owners are so independent that they are only remotely connected to the ABA’s IndieBound promotion. “We’re extremely independent here,” says Cory Loren, founder of Book Beat, which also features an extensive collection of children’s books among general titles. “I just don’t join groups.” That’s not exactly true. He belongs to a group of photographers that gathers periodically in his back room.

“If you’re in the bookstore business, you’re in it because you love books,” says Karen Kelchak, owner of the Old Village Bookshop in Plymouth. “I love books and I’m making a small profit. It’s not what I made four or five years ago, but so what? I’m doing what I love to do.”

Kelchak’s cats, Franny and Zooey, help create a homey environment in her shop. “I have many customers that walk into my store, stand at my counter, and tell me how many books they want. I go get them for them. They know that I know what they’ve read; they know that I know what they like. They don’t move a muscle…. Where are you going to get that? Are you going to get that on Amazon?” Kelchak prides herself on offering customers very good prices on her used books with trade-ins.

Kelchak and others concede that book readers are buying a lot of books from Amazon — hard copy and digital. While most stores are engaged in online commerce, they are banking that there will be enough readers who “don’t like to read a book on a ‘device,'” as Kelchak puts it.

“You’d be stupid to think that physical books are going to be as ubiquitous as they were 10 years ago,” says Lenhoff. “People are still reading; they’re choosing to read in a digital format.” He says that books will become what vinyl records are to the music industry.

Sweeney doesn’t see e-books as a “harbinger of doom” because the reading experience is so different on all levels. She also discounts projections of those who say paper publishing will become extinct. “There are a lot of people who don’t like the experience of reading on a screen; even the best screens can be tiresome for the eyes.”

With the exception of Leopold’s, the booksellers interviewed rely at least partly on online commerce to pay the bills. But everyone will quickly say that their business is about human interaction and the tangible experience of the printed page: the feel, the look, even the smell.

In Leopold’s, it feels like walking in a gallery. There isn’t the clutter of abundant titles that may warm and overcome you at once. Instead, it’s a selection of graphic novels, literature of interest to Lenhoff, and hard-to-get periodicals.

“The book business is certainly a hard one and it’s becoming more difficult every day,” Lenhoff says, “but recognizing why bookstores are still important and why physical books might be attractive to some people probably will be the key to bookstores remaining relevant and useful to their communities; and figuring out what services I can provide to the community that don’t make sense in other places.” Leopold’s selection includes books that “are really well-designed, that are beautiful objects in and of themselves, which addresses the the notion of physicality that digital content can’t approach.”

Lisa Taylor launched Used on New knowing the odds, but hoping that her community bookstore will become integral to the Main Street Mt. Clemens shopping experience. The bookstore is actually a three-way partnership with two boutiques, Redesigning Women and Weirdsville, she says. Her business model is “not necessarily about books; it’s about getting people together. …People have become so distant…society has made people (live) separate lives. People miss that community interaction.”

Taylor, a former Borders employee, says there is a stark difference between the large bookseller and a community bookstore. Borders, she says, created “a homogenization of experience that made you feel like you could have walked into any Borders. … It really cuts down the level of thought, the level of communication, the exchange of ideas. …That’s a more tremendous experience and nourishing to the soul than having decisions made from on high.”

Magina’s used and rare bookstore, is a unique retailer in the blue collar Lincoln Park community, says Magina, but his customers come from many communities. He also sells at national historic book fairs.”People have been coming here for years; I have regulars that have been coming here 20, 30 years. They come in with their kids, and their kids start coming, and their kid’s kids. I was here as a little kid and I remember people who came in when I was a kid who are still coming in.”

Like Book Beat, Taylor sees value in bringing creatives together at Used on New. She has worked out an arrangement with an Oakland University creative writing program to host writer meet-ups in her shop. It’s quieter than a coffee house and a little more alive than a library conference room.

Book Beat, which features a monthly book club and readings by national and local authors, also has art exhibits. “When I opened this store, I wanted to have an emphasis on photography and art,” Loren explains. “Having a small gallery would be like having a small laboratory for me to experiment with different artists that are of interest to me. I don’t always do the most profitable exhibits. I do things I can afford to do. We try to sell work here, but if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.”

In a sense, that’s the dilemma of independent book stores: How to remain true to their passion for selling books, establish a creative niche, and remain relevant to the local market in the face of e-commerce, all the while keeping their communities vibrant.

Dennis Archambault is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Metromode, Model D and Concentrate.

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