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The New Strength of Independents

While I am not consistently doing a happy dance—January and February here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, are long, cold months—as an independent bookseller, I have new reasons to be cautiously optimistic. After the closing of Borders, whose mother ship store was just a few blocks away, we’ve seen that folks are still very interested in a bookstore experience, as well as actual books.

 
 
Lots of the reasons we’re still here have to do with staying with the program we mapped out when we opened—selling a healthy mix of new and used books, as well as operating (as my husband likes to say) like guerilla fighters. We have to take our opportunities any way we can get them and make use of our painstakingly accrued connections. The happy side of that coin, of course, is that many customers and authors have become friends.

As we move forward with a commitment to avoid e-books, a commitment we didn’t know we had made twenty years ago, we have to continue to give our customers something they can’t get anywhere else. With the demise of the chains, those things are starting to seem more evident.

We provide a place where folks can browse. While that was certainly possible at the late, lamented Borders, our space isn’t full of gifts or coffee, but just books (OK, we have a few cards), as well as comfortable couches and chairs where folks can sit and decide what they want to read next. Our collection is curated—a lot of what we carry are books we love and want to share with readers. Luckily, lots of readers have learned to love the authors we are passionate about. Only last week, my husband had to chase down the UPS man to get our boxes of Elly Griffiths’ new book to satisfy an eager reader.

We are delighted our passionate and lively book club has entered its nineteenth year of wild discussions, author visits, and new authors read by all and either loved or loathed (in nineteen years, we’ve only read a handful of titles that everyone liked). A book club is also something impossible to replicate online, or in a larger store where perhaps the interest level of the management would be on the low side. An online book club couldn’t share a piece of cake together when someone moves or gets promoted or has a baby or gets married.

We love our author events, which can be intimate or large and noisy affairs. Sometimes they include dinner with our whole book club—another specifically different thing we can offer. I have sometimes thought that, in the future, bookstores will be the boutique end of publishing—a place where publishers can display their wares, and that includes meeting and talking with an actual author face to face.

Last week, we hosted a brand new author and, since she was new, the few people attending were hardcore book club members. But as the crowd filled to a respectable number, we were also joined by a local mystery author who wanted to meet the author we were hosting. They had “met” on Facebook. The conversation was a lively one about this author’s lengthy and amazingly persistent road to publication. There were a lot of questions and lots of give and take. Thanks to this event, we introduced customers to a new writer, interested them in the next event we’re hosting for the local author when her new book comes out, and yes, we sold a few books. We think that’s something a small, independent bookstore is made to do.

We are boutique now—we’re a specific destination folks come to town to visit, and that’s part of what makes shopping in our actual, physical store an experience difficult to replicate. I think that’s what’s making the independent bookstore unexpectedly resilient. And I think for the sake of variety and originality and eccentricity in writing and publishing, bookstores are a must, otherwise readers will be reading the same old bestsellers all the time. We need publishers with discerning editors and bookstores with discerning buyers. I think those things are essential to maintain a high standard of writing and, selfishly, a high standard for readers. I am nothing if not a passionate reader.

A sign of spring on our bookstore block: two new stores are opening. One of them is a new independent bookstore, so the signs of hope must be out there somewhere. Who knows how long we, and they, will be around, but at the moment we’re enjoying the splendid reading and bookselling journey we’ve been lucky enough to experience for twenty years now.

Aunt Agatha’s, located in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, specializes in new and used mysteries, detection and true crime books. For more information, visit www.auntagathas.com

 

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